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Workaholics Are Bad for Team Morale

Topics: Work Culture

Burning the candle at both ends can seem exhilarating. But, if you think working all the time means doing your best work, you’re flat out wrong. Workaholics aren’t the most productive members of most teams.

A recent study of 5,000 workers found that the top performers at nearly any job were the ones who worked with great focus, but not with great amounts of dedicated time.

“The main finding, and it’s actually a huge surprise to me, is that the best performers, they do less,” says study leader Morten Hansen, a management professor at U.C. Berkeley, in an interview with NBC News BETTER.

“We always think about the opposite, right?” he continued. “The best performers should be those who are on 24/7, they are juggling five, six, seven, eight projects at the same time. They go to meetings after meetings. But no, the best performers, they were able to prioritize and to concentrate on a few things that really matter for performance.”

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Want to be the best at getting stuff done? Hansen says the winners practice a style of hyper-focus he calls, “do less, then obsess.” Make a list of your priorities — say, the top 10 things you need to do — and then cross off the bottom seven and really focus on those top three. Hansen says that’s the way to do your best work. Then you get to rethink how to accomplish the other tasks (or delegate that work to others).

If you’re still trying to get more done by throwing time at the problem, you will start to see diminishing returns on that investment. After about 50 hours — that’s just 10 extra hours a week — the quality of your work will deteriorate.

Leading By Example … By Leaving Work on Time

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You won’t get a midnight email from entrepreneur Ariana Huffington. After years of relentless work, she’d had enough of hearing about how little sleep her competitors were logging. She has now become an outspoken proponent of the movement to log off and get some rest, for productivity’s sake. She’s even written a book about it, The Sleep Revolution.

“For many years, I subscribed to a very flawed definition of success, buying into our collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay,” Huffington says. “Then, in 2007, I had a painful wake-up call: I fainted from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, hit my head on my desk and broke my cheekbone.”

Now, Huffington prioritizes sleep, and deprioritizes her electronic devices in advance of bedtime. She finds her waking hours have more productivity and “less static,” leaving her more alert and clear-minded.

WHy We Need Work-Life Balance Now More Than Ever

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Older generations might be shocked you aren’t willing to do more “for the company.” But the fact is, before the last 20 years or so, you simply couldn’t spend all your day working. You had to go home sometime.

But, see, with technology the way it is — a computer in every hand — you can always stay connected for every ping and alert. If you choose to always be “on,” then you’ll never be off.

This isn’t to say that you leave your team high and dry when there’s a big push for a deadline. It’s just that no longer is it a badge of honor to be the first one in and last one out — especially when you’re tethered to work 24/7 if you so desire.

This is How Workaholics “Work”

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Do you wear those long hours working well past closing time as a crown? Are you sheepishly proud at your “can’t stop, never stop” workday? That drive you feel might not be a devotion to your job. It might be a compulsion, and not a good one.

“Whereas engaged workers are driven to work because they find it intrinsically pleasurable, workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion to work — feelings that they ‘should’ be working,” writes Malissa A. Clark, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Work and Family Experience Research Lab at the University of Georgia, in the APA newsletter.

In her recent study on the subject, Clark compiles current professional opinions on what exactly defines “workaholicism,” which includes the following:

  • Feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures.
  • Having persistent thoughts about work when not working.
  • Working beyond what is reasonably expected of the worker (as established by the requirements of the job or basic economic needs) despite the potential for negative consequences (e.g., marital issues).

How Workaholics Hurt Themselves

wrong job
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Studies show that workaholics create more problems than they resolve. For one, working too much can lead to health problems like:

  • A 40 percent increase in coronary heart disease,
  • More frequent heavy drinking,
  • Increase in stress,
  • Decrease in exercise,
  • and an increase in sleep disorders.

How Workaholics Ruin Teams

Since it turns out that working all the time isn’t productive, workaholics are jeopardizing their health for no added benefit to the job.

Worse, they’re stressing out their teammates with every email they send after hours. They add to a team’s dysfunction by insisting that work carry on after closing time, perhaps guilting their coworkers into taking laptops home, checking email on vacation, etc.

When that workaholic is the boss, then their employees might feel like they simply can’t take a break, even if they desperately want to.

“Employees see this behavior and feel they will be viewed as unmotivated if they don’t put in extra hours, come to work sick or leave vacation days on the table,” writes John Rampton at Entrepreneur.

the Worker Who Won’t Go Home

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Bosses beware. Having a team of workaholics, or even just one member who can’t unplug, is a problem. If you are able to set some guidelines to discourage this behavior from the beginning, all the better. If you need to cut it out right now, then go for it.

Some tips:

  • Set a minimum number of vacation days employees must take, instead of a maximum. Workaholics are those folks who tend to roll over their days, rather than take them. Insist they take 100 percent disconnected breaks from the office. No email checking allowed.
  • Insist that sick days be taken away from the office. Workaholics are often the ones who’ll “work through the flu” instead of leaving that sickness at home and actually resting and getting healthy. They’ll spread the ick through the office faster than you can say “leftover bagels in the conference room.” Worse, they’ll actually feel sick longer if they don’t take time to recover.
  • Insist that FOMO is not OK. Tell employees that they don’t need to add their work email to personal devices like phones and tablets or personal laptops. They shouldn’t feel like they’re possibly missing something while watching their child’s soccer game or swimming at the gym. Don’t guilt employees for missing the 2 a.m. screed from a client on a different continent. It can wait.

If you’re not the boss, but encounter workaholism in your office, talk to your manager about setting some more reasonable expectations. How could your team work smarter, not harder?

Some common productivity sucks are:

  • Meetings without agendas. (You spend 15 minutes figuring out what you’re there to do, then arguing over how to do it.)
  • Email chains without focus. (Why was everyone cc’ed on this?)
  • Expectations for checking in all the time, no matter what. (Just let me check my work email while you push out that baby.)

If you can come to the powers that be with some real ideas for improving efficiency, you’re likely to get a positive response.

Look in the Mirror: Are You the Workaholic?

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If you’ve been reading this and it seems like it rings a bit too true as to how your life operates — always on, no matter what — then you’ve got some things to fix on yourself. Take a step back and make those lists of the following:

  • What part of your work-life balance is tilting? Is your work at 90 percent, while your life is only 10 percent?
  • Which parts of your day are taking up time, but lacking efficiency? Should you check email at set times, instead of throughout the day? Is it really more productive to work through lunch, or should you swap that desk salad for a walk in the fresh air?
  • Make some goals to wean yourself off work. You can set aside time for “play” or even use some timers to keep your hands off your email or work programs. Don’t bring the laptop to bed with you at night. Take your work email off your phone so you’re not tempted. You can even tell Slack or other programs not to ping you after hours, so even if you’re working across time zones, your team isn’t always buzzing in your ear while you’re trying to eat dinner.

Finding productivity doesn’t have to be an “always on” proposition. When you work all the time, you do yourself and your team a disservice. Encouraging employee engagement, rather than being plugged in 24/7, is far better for the team in the long term.


Are you a workaholic — or do you work with one? We want to know! Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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