Workaholism is probably the most respectable sin in the Christian community, and maybe especially among pastors. In this Harvard Business Review podcast (and transcript) Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “draws a distinction between workaholism and working long hours. She explains the health consequences of being addicted to your work. She also gives practical advice for managing work addiction, whether it’s you who’s suffering, your direct report, boss, peer, or partner.”

Rothbard provides seven statements and says we should be worried if we often or always do at least four of them.

1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.

2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.

3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression.

4. You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

6. You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.

7. You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

She makes a helpful distinction between working long hours and being a workaholic. Here’s how she puts it.

Bascially, long hours are 50 hours a week or more. So, there are some people who work a lot but they can turn off. They might even work once they get home, but if something is demanding their attention at home or if they, you know, need to go to the gym or they want to hang out with friends, they’re able to do that without ruminating on their work.

[Workaholism is more about] our attitude towards our work: how we think about our work, whether we dwell on it, whether we feel guilty when we’re not working. When you’re a workaholic, the work really looms large in your mind, and it can be really difficult to turn it off, even when you’re not actually working….There’s a strong correlation between working long hours and being a workaholic. So, I mean, you can be a workaholic without working long hours, but typically if you’re a workaholic, you are also working long hours.

See also Rothbard’s article  “How Being a Workaholic Differs from Working Long Hours — and Why That Matters for Your Health.” It has a fascinating section on the how the chronic stress levels associated with workaholism create a whole lot of  health dangers.

Here’s a quick explanation of why: To cope with stress, the body activates several systems (e.g., cardiovascular, neuroendocrine). So say you’re facing an important deadline. As you approach it, your stress hormones (e.g., cortisol), pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines (e.g., interleukin-6), and blood pressure would likely go up. But after the deadline, these would return to their original levels, known as the “set points.” When you’re working an excessive workload and continually pushing your system beyond its range, you may re-set your set points. Elevated blood pressure may become chronic, and cortisol levels stay elevated. When your biological systems keep working around elevated set points, you have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, and even death.

In short, the body gets stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode which is ultimately exhausting and unsustainable and often leads to depression.

“But I love my job!”

Well, the researchers found that while loving your job does protect from some of the health risks, you are still at significantly increased risk of ill-health:

We wanted to see if enjoying the work mitigates the negative health effects of workaholism. Looking at the data from our study, we differentiated between workaholics who reported being highly engaged with their work — meaning they enjoyed their work, felt vigorous at work, and got easily absorbed in their work — and workaholics who reported low work engagement. We found that both types of workaholics reported more psychosomatic health complaints (e.g., headache, stomach problems) and mental health complaints (e.g., sleep problems, depressive feelings) than non-workaholics. However, non-engaged workaholics had higher RMS [Risk for Metabolic syndrome] — a 4.2% higher risk — than engaged workaholics.

Rothbard’s solutions?

1. Acknowledge when a relationship to work is unhealthy — when it feels out of control and is undermining outside relationships.

2. Regain control over your work behavior by setting clear rules for how many hours you will work each day.

3. Stop working two or three hours before bed.

4. Take up enjoyable non-work activities, such as seeing friends, watching a movie, reading a book, or learning a new skill, can also help you psychologically detach from work.

5. Reflect on the reasons why you work excessively and compulsively.

On this last point, the two most common reasons I’ve come across (also in my own heart), are idolatry and identity. By identity, I mean finding one’s significance in one’s work rather than in one’s spiritual status as justified and adopted by God through Christ.

To test yourself on this, what’s the first answer that comes to mind when you ask yourself “Who am I?” If your first and loudest answer is anything other than “I am a Christian” then someone has stolen your true identity and substituted a false one.