On the Clock

Rethinking the Workaholic

A 100-hour work week that might not be so bad? Experts weigh in on the pros and cons of working too hard.

4 min read

Nobody can say Lena Podolsky isn’t dedicated to her work. For the past year and a half, she has been running her husband’s dental and holistic medical practice in Stamford, Connecticut, and New York City, and frequently labors late into the night and on weekends. All of which may not sound that unusual, except one thing: These duties add up to a hundred hours a week—or nearly three times what some people work in one week.

She had actually taken this job to cut down on hours. But while these hours are “long,” they are, in her words, “enjoyable.”

“One in eight U.S. workers put in more than 55 hours of labor per week compared to 1% of French laborers.”

Some people might think of Podolsky as a quintessential workaholic, which is rarely seen as good. Indeed, ever since psychologist Wayne Oates popularized the term “workaholic” in 1971, the popular view of such people has been negative. Defined in the dictionary as “a compulsive worker” or “a person who compulsively works hard and long hours,” it’s been found to lead to everything from headaches and sleep disruption to family tensions, divorce, and early death.

But just as we used to think that margarine was much healthier than butter, research shows the reality of being a workaholic is ambiguous, at best. A study by the Academy of Management Discoveries of employees at an international consulting firm found no evidence that working long hours was always related to health problems. Overworked employees who didn’t enjoy their duties exhibited signs of being at risk for serious health problems. But people who found their work to be engaging were doing just fine. The conclusion: While being a workaholic is sometimes bad, at other times it isn’t.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Americans top the charts for working a lot. About one in eight workers put in more than 55 hours of labor per week compared to 1% of French laborers, according to researchers at the Royal Holloway University of London and the Paris School of Economics. The increasing use of smartphones and other tech tools, of course, is also creating a murky boundary between work and life. According to an American Time Use Survey, in 2015 at least 24% of respondents said on workdays they did some tasks from home, up from 19% in 2003. “It’s become harder to have a separation,” says Stacey Perkins, a Dallas-based career coach with Korn Ferry.

What’s more, it isn’t always obvious when you’re going overboard. For one thing, what is workaholic behavior in one profession may be normal in another. (Think emergency room doctors or start-up software engineers). “It’s all about your chosen field,” says Kathy Robinson, founder of Boston-based career-coaching firm TurningPoint. “In your profession, working a demanding schedule could simply be a given.”

Part of what makes working hard complicated is that it often can appear as if everyone is doing it. One of Robinson’s current clients, for example, has been working at a tech start-up for the past two years. Despite poor sleep, a lack of exercise, and constantly feeling stressed out, she wants to try and hang on for another two years because everyone around her seems to be in the same predicament.

“You feel you have to get with the program or get out,” Robinson says.

But continuing with a workhorse mentality, particularly at companies that place a value on such thinking, can backfire. Thierry Guedj, a psychologist and executive coach who heads BostonJobDoctor, points to a financial-services executive who spends perhaps 10 minutes with his three children each week. He’s been promoted multiple times and now is on the verge of taking the next step to managing director—a position that will require even more demands. But the executive is thinking of telling his boss he doesn’t want the promotion. “It’s a dynamic that’s built into some companies,” Guedj says. “In my experience, you don’t have a choice if you want to move up.”

Ultimately, satisfaction in a job can make all the difference when considering the effects of being a workaholic. As the president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, a New York City-based firm that coaches families on how to get their children into private schools, Emily Glickman answer calls and emails from clients at all hours. But she says she thrives on the constant demands because she has purpose in her job. “I’m lucky because I’m in a field where I have control over who I accept as a client,” she says. “It’s a good feeling when I can help people who are going through a stressful situation.”