Mounting working hours in the corporate world – and the inner urge that many feel to conform to them – have returned to the spotlight courtesy of Melinda Gates. In her first ever column for LinkedIn, Gates tackles workaholism by disparaging an ad in a 1949 issue of Fortune magazine, which implied that men are free to work as many hours as they like to climb the hierarchical ladder, because their spouses are always there to pick up the slack.

“Of course,” Gates writes, “that wasn’t always true back then, and it definitely isn’t today … Many [workers] find themselves straining to balance their jobs and their families, and life both at home and at work suffers as a result.” She points out: “Astoundingly, we remain a country where just 15% of Americans have access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. In fact, most companies are asking employees to work more.” Gates adds: “The American workweek has soared from less than 40 hours to nearly 50 in the time since that issue of Fortune was published. Technology has made it harder to pull away from our jobs – and easier to wonder whether a night off or a long weekend is damaging our careers.”

That emotional difficulty with packing up and going home has also been highlighted recently by work psychologist Lisa Orbé-Austin. In her assessment, ‘impostor syndrome’ is often at the heart of workaholic behaviour, with people “who feel like they’ve always got to prove themselves because [they believe] they’re not really as good as people think” particularly at risk of burning themselves out – even though they may have excellent track records.

What should leaders look for to detect workaholism in themselves, their colleagues and their organisations – and how should they address the problem?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The problem of workaholism is very much bound up in the work-life balance debate: if some people love their work so much that they don’t feel like it’s work, then it really becomes a kind of leisure interest. Perhaps they’re so focused on that one area of their lives that if work is taken away from them, they’ll feel somehow disappointed or bereft. There is, after all, that phrase ‘Get a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ So I think some understanding that there are fortunate people who do love their work, and want to work very hard at it, is necessary here.”

However, Cooper explains, “when you turn to the type of people cited in the work of David McClelland – who popularised a theory that humans have a desire for high achievement – then you will certainly have people who push themselves hard, who strive for perfection and who never think that ‘good’ is good enough. And they’re the people that leaders and managers really have to watch, because they’re the ones who are most in danger of burnout. Those people will of course be very highly motivated, but they will also need recognition for their achievement. Leaders may not understand that they need recognition as a reward, just as much as their less-driven colleagues.

“But I think you also need to examine people who may have other motivations for immersing themselves in work, which may not have anything to do with achievement or an effort to be the best. It may be because they prefer being at work to being in other places – and again, that sense of estrangement from life outside work is something that a leader or manager needs to look out for.”

Cooper notes: “For any leader, booking time away from work with your colleagues for team-building activities is often time well spent. Getting employees into a new environment doing new and different things provides them with a boost. In that context, their various abilities and talents – which may not have anything to do with their work roles at all – can flourish. This will create a cushion of reassurance for those who have difficulties with peeling themselves away from the workplace.”

Around the turn of the millennium, Cooper points out, “we saw the rise of outdoor management development as a hugely popular means of detaching teams from their offices and encouraging them to use the resources around them – including themselves. There were no computers and no flipcharts, so this approach had a great deal to offer in terms of inspiring employees to harness all their skills and qualities, some of which may have been hidden or dormant. These excursions didn’t have to be physically gruelling or require significant bravery or stamina. They simply involved putting teams in different environments where the members would be the resources. Descendants of those courses still exist today.”

She adds: “If you haven’t got time for downtime, then there’s a problem. You do need to refresh in order to have the headspace to generate new ideas. And if you’re too busy running on the treadmill and not taking enough time to come off it, then at some point you will hit the burnout barrier.”

For further thoughts on managing your team’s workload, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of Melinda Gates courtesy of JStone, via Shutterstock