stressWorkaholics work hard, but still have poor job performance — mainly because of high mental and physical strain, according to a study in the November Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Alexander Falco, PhD, and colleagues of University of Padova, Italy, analyzed survey responses from a sample of more than 300 private-sector workers. Workaholism is defined as working excessively and working compulsively — workaholics “work hard, rather than smart.”

Digestive, sleep problems

The workers in the study had “moderate” levels of workaholism overall. Workaholics showed evidence of high job strain, with physical and mental symptoms such as digestive, memory, and sleep problems.

In turn, high strain was associated with worse job performance — thus workaholism led indirectly to decreased performance, via increased mental and physical strain. After accounting for strain, there was no direct link between workaholism and job performance.

Fewer absences

There was a similar indirect effect on absenteeism, with high job strain leading to increased absences. But this was partly offset by a negative direct effect — perhaps reflecting workaholics' reluctance to miss any work time, even when ill. Since the direct effect was stronger, workaholics tended to have fewer absences, on balance.

Workaholism is reported in eight to 25 percent in various groups of workers, and has significant negative effects on health as well as personal and work life. Understanding how workaholism affects work-related outcomes could help lead to new ways of mitigating a common problem that's costly for employers.

Identifying and treating workaholics

“Our study highlights the central role of psycho-physIc strain in the relationship between workaholism and job performance,” Dr. Falco and coauthors write. Because workaholics devote so much time to their work, lack of adequate recovery time leads to “breakdown at an emotive or cognitive level,” and ultimately to strain-related symptoms. The researchers discuss possible steps to prevent workaholism, such as workplace changes to achieve a better balance between work and private life; as well as approaches to identifying workers at risk and providing treatment for diagnosed workaholics.

Citation — Falco A, Girardi D, Kravina L, et al. The mediating role of psychophysic strain in the relationship between workaholism, job performance, and sickness absence: a longitudinal study. J Occup Environ Med. 2013;55(11):1255-61.

About ACOEM — ACOEM (, an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.