This New Year, Resolve Against Workaholism

Leaders can help employees who prioritize their jobs at the expense of their personal lives to improve their work-life balance — to everyone’s benefit.

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Employees often go the extra mile by staying late or helping a coworker with an assignment. These actions — known as citizenship behaviors — are especially beneficial to the companies where these employees work. In fact, research shows that employee citizenship behavior enhances both team and company performance. For years, scholars have recognized these behaviors as a core way that supervisors evaluate overall job performance.

However, some workers go far beyond common citizenship behaviors and cross important work-life boundaries — by using their own money for company expenses, working during vacations, or canceling plans to spend time with their families, for instance. These extreme citizenship behaviors can be detrimental to employee well-being, team culture, and the fabric of our communities.

One reason extreme citizenship behaviors are so damaging is that they create social norms that can be challenging to abandon — for example, pulling one all-nighter for a project can lead to two all-nighters for the next assignment. Indeed, social norms can be even more powerful than formal rules and regulations. As individuals witness others’ attempts to win the boss’s favor, they may feel obligated to follow suit by mimicking a coworker’s extreme citizenship behavior even though it conflicts with their own life arrangements. Ultimately, these overextensions can lead to fatigue, unethical behavior, turnover, and work-family conflict.

To understand extreme citizenship better, we recently polled more than 400 knowledge workers in the U.S. and the U.K. As many of us start the new year with resolutions and aspirational goals like getting promoted, you should consider these insights from our study to help promote a healthy work-life balance for yourself and your team.

Extreme Citizenship Behaviors Are Real

Our first finding is that extreme citizenship behaviors are indeed happening, despite recent hubbub over quiet quitting. Employees we surveyed told stories of reporting for work the day after their mother passed away and rushing back to work after their child’s birth. Others said they worked right after surgery, while sick with COVID-19, until 3 a.m. on Christmas Day, or during their grandmother’s funeral.

Indeed, 93% of the employees surveyed indicated that they had engaged in some form of extreme citizenship behavior. When we asked them about their future expectations, nearly 1 in 3 reported that they are likely to continue engaging in extreme citizenship behaviors this year. These statistics should be a wake-up call for managers who are unaware of the ubiquity of this behavior.

Looking more deeply at the data, we identified two major reasons employees make these personal sacrifices: extrinsic motives, such as peer pressure or wanting to get ahead; and intrinsic motives, such as their love of the work. Managers can approach this extreme behavior differently, based on an employee’s motives.

Prioritize Quality Over Constant Availability

In our rat-race economy, quantity of work can become the most valuable metric, which can lead to citizenship pressure for employees who don’t want to let their boss down or who hope to get ahead. In fact, 68% of our participants perceive that greater output makes employees more promotable.

“I think I am a workaholic, and I hate it.” As this quote from one of our participants indicates, people can feel trapped in this demanding cycle of work. A case in point is that 38% of employees reported feeling regret about their extreme citizenship behaviors. Survey participants noted, “I would like to be able to stop,” “I’m driven by anxiety and feelings of inadequacy,” “I know it’s a toxic part of myself,” and “I regret it.” Indeed, one employee described it as a “terribly confusing internal conflict.”

One way managers can reduce this pressure is by placing a greater emphasis on quality of output rather than focusing primarily on an employee’s high level of availability or sheer quantity of completed work. Emphasizing availability fundamentally disadvantages those who have child care responsibilities, those with disabilities, or those who simply enjoy their hobbies. When quality is the first and most valued criterion, employees will realize that they can be excellent workers and still have a flourishing personal life.

An easy way to implement this managerial practice is to discourage behaviors that attempt to signal availability beyond the workday, like staying signed in on Slack or responding to emails after-hours. For example, email recipients may overestimate the need to respond immediately and dash off a comment to indicate that they are online. Let employees know that a meaningful response, crafted when they have time, is more valuable than a hasty reply.

When quality is the first and most valued criterion, employees will realize that they can be excellent workers and still have a flourishing personal life.

Managers can also demonstrate their commitment to quality, as opposed to constant availability and high output, by signing off at the end of the workday themselves. Remember: Face time does not equal work time. Humans can only complete so much deep work in a day before experiencing diminishing returns. Give yourself and others permission and time to recharge, which has been shown to increase personal initiative and task performance.

Your Work Is Not Your Life

Not all workers believe that extreme citizenship behaviors are toxic. Some employees in our survey indicated that these behaviors are “completely natural when your company and work mean so much to you.” Indeed, 44% of our participants reported that they feel proud of their decision to make these sacrifices. “I enjoy the work and the feeling of being productive” was a common sentiment. Others used words such as “positive,” “noble,” “dedication,” and “pleasant.”

These statements reveal that, in contrast to our first group of employees, others eagerly make personal sacrifices for work. Many of these employees likely have what scholars call an obsessive work passion. For them, work is their life, and going a couple of extra miles on behalf of the company is an easy decision.

Leaders might be tempted to look the other way when employees are consistently making these personal sacrifices. However, depending on their relationships and company culture, managers can encourage these workers to nurture their personal lives, which is an investment in the employees themselves and in the broader community.

A recent survey revealed that 34% of employees have asked their boss for advice on a personal issue. In these intimate moments, it may be appropriate to encourage subordinates to develop their hobbies, volunteer in the community, or invest in personal sustainability. Even for employees who want to work during their child’s band concert, it may be worthwhile to gently encourage them to reassess how they measure their life.

If employees still wish to engage in extreme citizenship behaviors, managers should ensure that it doesn’t become normalized on the team. Leaders need to make it clear that these types of extreme behaviors are not required to get ahead and that employees can still succeed by prioritizing work-life boundaries.

Conveying these values will take time, but by consistently sending this message via team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and gentle reminders, you will be able to counteract the toxic behavior of any one employee. Ultimately, followers look to their leaders for inspiration, motivation, and guidance. Set the example by sending clear signals that you prioritize value creation, not extreme citizenship behaviors.

Once you know that extreme citizenship behavior is occurring, the next step is to act. This new year, avoid pressuring employees to make these sacrifices and demonstrate your commitment to a healthy workplace by encouraging self-proclaimed workaholics to respect and invest in their lives outside of work.


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