Working excessively hard and clocking in late night hours at work, during the weekdays, weekend, and holidays could end up backfiring. Workaholics may work hard but are found to perform worse, not better than their more laid-back colleagues, due to mental and physical strain, according to a recent study.

Workaholics are generally admired for their hard work and dedication to the job as this is seen as a respectable vice. While there is not a single medical definition for workaholism — a word devised by Wayne Oates, an American psychologist — psychologists have tried to differentiate people who are devoted to their careers to those who are true addicts.

In another paper, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addiction, researchers sought to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the term, "workaholic," taking into account the individual factors of the employee, working environment, and work activity itself. The condition has been described as an extreme aspect of behavioral engagement.

While the definition of workaholism till remains sketchy for many, the term has been associated with detrimental health outcomes, such as sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. The effects of workaholism on the physical and mental health state of the individual have just begun to surface in recent years as technology has made it feasible to be connected to society 24/7.

For the study, a team of researchers at the University of Padova, Italy, sought to investigate how workaholism predicts, both directly and indirectly, mental and physical strain, job performance, and sickness absences. Over a 15-month period, 322 workers (86 women and 234 men) from a private company were examined. The average age range of the participants were between 40 and 50 years old holding blue collar, white collar, or management positions. The majority of the workers had been with the company for more than five years.

In the study, workaholism was measured with the Italian version of the Dutch Workaholism Scale. The scale includes two dimensions: working excessively (six items) and working compulsively (four items). Examples of working excessively included, “I seem to be in a hurry and racing against the clock” and “I spend more time working than on socializing with friends, on hobbies, or on leisure activities," while working compulsively included, “I feel that there's something inside me that drives me to work hard” and “I feel obliged to work hard, even when it is not enjoyable.” Upon reading the questionnaire, participants had to indicate how often they experienced these feelings on a six-point frequency scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 6 (always).

To measure job strain, researchers included sample items, such as nausea, slow and difficult digestion, memory problems, and sleep problems to analyze if the employees experienced the symptoms in the last six months. An occupational physician was responsible for rating the employees on a six-point frequency scale similar to the one used to measure workaholism.

Lastly, job performance was analyzed by asking the participants’ supervisor to answer the following question: “In your opinion, in what percentage has employee X accomplished his/her goals during the last year?” The 10-point response scale ranged from 1 (10%) to 10 (100%).

Sickness absence for obtained from the company’s records.

The researchers found that the majority of the workers in the study had “moderate” levels of workaholism. These hard workers showed evidence of high job strain, alongside physical and mental symptoms, such as digestive, memory, and sleep problems, the Daily Mail reports. Workers who experienced high strain tend to perform worse at their job which suggests mental and physical strain triggered poor job performance. However, the researchers found no direct link between workaholism and job performance.

The findings also revealed an indirect effect on absenteeism — high job strain lead to increased absences. Researchers speculate this was offset by a negative direct effect of workaholics’ unwillingness to miss any work time even when they’re ill. Their lack of sufficient recovery time lead to a “breakdown at an emotive and cognitive level,” and ultimately lead to strain-related symptoms, the researchers said.

In a similar study, published in the journal Financial Services Review, a researcher found a link between workaholism and physical and mental well-being. “We found workaholics — defined by those working more than 50 hours per week — were more likely to have reduced physical well-being, measured by skipped meals,” the authors wrote, according to Science Daily

While the condition may still be considered a respectable vice by many, there has yet to be any further analysis on the detrimental health outcomes it can have on an individual.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that there are 10 million workers in the U.S. who average more than 60 hours per week. These workers are susceptible to the stress-related illnesses, divorce, and alcohol abuse. There is a support group in the U.S. called Workaholics Anonymous that helps individuals solve their common problems and help others recover from workaholism.

Source: Bartolucci, GB, Capozza D, De Carlo NA et al. The Mediating Role of Psychophysic Strain in the Relationship Between Workaholism, Job Performance, and Sickness Absence: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2013.