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Right after grad school, I worked for a super small, super new startup. When I joined, there weren’t more than 10 of us on the team, and everybody had to fill multiple roles just to keep the company afloat.
A few months into my new gig, a friend visited and saw me clacking away on my laptop before bed. “You get work emails at 11 p.m.?!” he asked me.
Well, yes – but I’d never stopped to think about it. It didn’t bother me that I never really disconnected from the office – I enjoyed my work and I was thrilled to help grow the company.
This exchange with my friend came back to me as I was reading a paper, published in the Academy of Management Discoveries and highlighted in The Wall Street Journal, that debunks the myth that working long hours will necessarily kill you.
Instead, the researchers found, if you love your job, working long hours is probably fine. If you don’t love your job, and you’re working long hours because you feel like you have to, that’s where problems arise.
For the study, a team of researchers led by Lieke ten Brummelhuis at Simon Fraser University had employees at the Dutch arm of an international financial consulting firm complete surveys about their work hours, feelings about their job, and health complaints. Then, 763 employees participated in a health screening that measured their risk factors for health problems such as cardiovascular disease.
Results showed that working long hours, in and of itself, was not tied to risk factors for health problems or self-reported health complaints. But workaholism – defined as a compulsive work mentality – was. In fact, it didn’t matter how many hours workaholics logged – they were still less healthy.
On the other hand, employees who worked long hours but were engaged with their jobs didn’t seem to suffer the same health consequences.
These findings are especially relevant at a time when the culture of “overwork” – especially Silicon Valley’s – is under attack. This issue is perhaps more nuanced than it seems: People shouldn’t necessarily be shamed for working long hours or logging on at 1 a.m. if they’re genuinely psyched about it.
Employers would be wiser to focus on reducing the pressure to stay late just so you look hardworking. Indeed, research has found that some employees in finance spend hours pretending to be working, when they’re really spending time with family.
As ten Brummelhuis told The Wall Street Journal, the implication here is that employers should focus on helping employees get excited about their jobs instead of encouraging them to work 24/7. Ultimately, engaged employees perform better than miserable ones.