Skip to main content

Is Your Coworker A Workaholic…Or Just Posing as One?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Have you ever worked somewhere where people constantly talked about how much they work they had to do, how many hours they’d put in that week, or how late they were staying? Or, do you know anyone who seems to wear his or her apparent workaholic lifestyle like a badge of honor?

Of course, there’s no doubt that some professions really do demand long, grueling hours. But are all these claims about working so much really accurate? Or might some employees be talking this way because they think it’s expected, or will serve them well in the workplace?

High-Intensity Firm Studied

One interesting study of professionals at one high-octane, high-stress, and highly paid international strategy, marketing, and finance consulting firm suggests that the situation is complicated—and that some workers may be presenting one reality while living another.

In this study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with about 80 North American consultants. The expectation in this company is that employees will be available to work extremely long hours, almost around the clock (including nights and weekends), and that they will travel at the drop of a hat.

Some Accepted the Expectations–But Others Rebelled

Of the consultants, about 40% embraced this way of thinking and did as they were expected to do, identifying with the “always on” mindset. Another 25% felt conflict or dissatisfaction and rejected these demands–yet successfully managed to appear as if they were putting in the expected 60 or 70 hours.

These “passing” employees used a variety of strategies that let them appear to be working constantly, but in reality allowed them to have more time for personal and family life. For instance, they cultivated mostly local clients (to avoid travel), cooperated with a small team with similar aims, confided in a trusted mentor who helped them ramp down their schedule, or even took time away without notifying anyone.

Finally, a third group, about 30%, also chafed at the expectations, but revealed their dissatisfaction more openly. These workers asked for accommodations like part-time work, a reduced workload, or FMLA or maternity leave.

Workers Who “Pass” as Workaholics Do Well

So how did these different approaches affect employees? Researchers actually gained access to workers’ performance ratings in order to assess this. The “embracers” did well, receiving high ratings at work. So did those who “passed” as living the workaholic life. As a matter of fact, on average, the “passers” received the highest performance evaluations of all!

But the “revealers” fared poorly, receiving poorer job evaluations. They were also more likely to leave the company over time.

Do Women Come Out the Losers?

And here’s the kicker. Overall, revealers were more likely to be women than men—even though men were just as likely as women to feel dissatisfied with the expectations they had been set. Men, on the contrary, were more likely to “pass.” That is, they wanted to (and did) work less, but managed to “look” as if they worked plenty. In the end, “passers” reaped the benefits of this decision.

While this study looked at just one company, and an unusual type of work at that, these findings raise questions about how employees can achieve work-life balance in such environments. According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, although the majority of today’s young men and women do rate career success as important, being a good parent and having a successful marriage rank quite a bit higher.

Cultural Change Needed

Work cultures that demand over-the-top dedication, long hours, and heavy travel are likely to be unmanageable for many employees. Yet asking for accommodations may be risky in some work environments, and FMLA and other family-oriented policies, while helpful, don’t yet seem to be enough. As researchers have pointed out, there seems to be a big gap between the very popular idea of “work-life balance” and employees’ actual reality. True change is unlikely until workers are open about their needs, while supervisors and overall company policy support and embrace a more livable balance.

References:

Kossek, E. E., Lewis, S., & Hammer, L. B. (2010). Work–life initiatives and organizational change: Overcoming mixed messages to move from the margin to the mainstream. Human Relations, 63(1), 3-19. doi:  10.1177/0018726709352385

Pattern, E., & Parker, K. (2012). A gender reversal on career aspirations. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/04/19/a-gender-reversal-on-career-aspirations/

Reid, E. (2015). Embracing, passing, revealing, and the ideal worker image: How people navigate expected and experienced professional identities. Organization Science, 1-21. Advance online pubication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2015.0975

Photo Credits: 4774344sean/iStock/Thinkstock