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The Bad News About Working Too Much

Workaholics’ extended hours can have serious health consequences

It’s part of the American way of life, but working too much can have serious physical and psychological consequences.

In many ways, workaholism is as much a part of American culture as hamburgers, cowboys, and jazz. A 2013 Center for Economic Research report called America the “No Vacation Nation,” and stated that on average, U.S. employers offer about six paid holidays and 10 paid vacation days per year. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that so many Americans are obsessed with their jobs, but scientists are discovering that working too much can have very real health consequences.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway looked at more than 16,000 workers with a mean age of 37 years old. Overall, 8 percent of the large sample were classified as “workaholics,” and they were significantly more likely to suffer from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), anxiety, and depression.

But is it the job that makes someone obsessive or do those who tend toward the obsessive end up as workaholics—chicken or the egg?

“Correlations between workaholism and all psychiatric disorder symptoms were positive and significant,” stated the researchers. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, however, but, according to the researchers, it’s probably safe to say that the combination of both can prove damaging.

A currently accepted definition of a workaholic is “being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and to investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.” But the University of Bergen study’s authors noted that, “the line between excessive enthusiasm and a genuine addiction is difficult to define.” Objectively, then it can be difficult to differentiate, but the researchers also used language typically associated with addiction disorders—just as if work were the drug.

In that example, an employee might use work to regulate emotions (mood modification), work longer hours to get the same mood effects (tolerance), be distressed if unable to work (withdrawal), fail to control time spent working (relapse), and suffer negative consequences as a result of working too much (problems). Mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, relapse, and problems are all components of a biopsychosocial framework of addiction.

Beyond being associated with poor psychological health, working too much can also degrade physical health. A 2015 meta-analysis published in The Lancet looked at 25 previous studies from the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Findings showed that those who worked long hours, which they define as 55 or more per week, were 13 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. The same group was 33 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than their counterparts who worked normal hours defined as 35-40 hours per week.

And even back in the 1920s, American icon and Huxley-ian deity Henry Ford found a point of diminishing returns after 40 hours per week, and thus reduced his factory workweek from six eight-hour days a week to five.

As many workers in industries like service and retail can attest to, there’s hardly a thing as paid time off, and many work some, or all, major holidays. At least the Obama administration recently finalized the law to expand overtime pay to those making under $47,476, but with the options for employers to pay time-and-a-half, raise salaries above the threshold, limit workers’ hours to 40 a week, or a combination of the options, there’s no real knowing how it’ll pan out—especially when many employers might simply cut hours.

But how do you maintain a healthy psyche and body when the hamster wheel doesn’t slow down, let alone stop? In contrast to the U.S., the European Union requires, by law, that its citizens have at least 20 paid vacation days per year, and some member nations require even more than that.

Perhaps Europeans know that when it comes to work, less can often be more. A 2008 study by the Families & Work Institute found that paid vacation resulted in several positive outcomes. “Having paid vacation time bodes well for personal health and well-being as well as job satisfaction and intent to stay in one’s job,” said the study’s authors.

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