Working long hours is often not an effective way of creating career success — in fact it could get in the way of your ability to think strategically and creatively, says health psychologist Rebecca Stafford.

According to online journal Horizons Tracker, research from Cass Business School in Britain suggests that when we work too hard, not only does our health suffer, but our careers do too.

Stafford says there are several components to "working hard". She says working hard isn't really bad — it's actually about the resulting stress. Are you chronically stressed?

"Generally with a job with high demand — one that's physically and/or intellectually demanding, if you feel that you have a level of control over what you're doing, it's not necessarily stressful. "Problems come in when there is a lot of pressure and low control over what you're doing."


She says that perceptions of autonomy and control are what's important. "There's the wider culture: in New Zealand we tend to have a workaholic culture, which is one where long hours are worked with low productivity."

The Horizons Tracker talks about what's called "presenteeism" — that's when you're at work but are not really achieving much.

Stafford says the three components are: overall culture, workplace culture and the individual employee.

"You could have a workplace that doesn't buy in to this workaholic culture, for example, Perpetual Guardian — that's the NZ workplace that's made international news because it's brought in the four-day, or rather 30-hour, working week. The staff have flexibility to do the hours as they want — so they can come in five shorter days, or four days.

"That organisation has shown that people who are working fewer hours, are more focused and are keeping up productivity.

"They've established a non-workaholic working culture."

As far as the individual is concerned, Stafford says, "The question is how much autonomy and control does an individual employee have? Workplace culture and the overall culture of course has an effect, but I would argue that it also comes down to the individual's perception.

"I'd say this has the biggest influence if work is hard in a harmful way. If we talk of locus of control. Those with a low locus of control believe that they don't have much control over the things that happen to them — that everything happens externally; while people with a high locus of control believe that they do have control."


She says workaholics tend to define their self worth on how busy and stressed they are. They also have an issue with time urgency — there's never enough time and they can't relax. Consequently, they have a low locus of control. They see themselves at the mercy of insufficient time.

"Workaholics have narrow vision and prioritise the low-important stuff such as checking likes on Facebook or emails rather than working on strategic policy.

"This is until strategy becomes urgent." This is how the brain naturally responds to stress, it gives a physical and cognitive short focus, and that can have big consequences on a person's health and career.

She says if you're working in a place with high demands and low autonomy, and you've got an individual with a high locus of self-control, they're likely to either push back on that culture or leave or decide to stay to serve their longer agenda. This is about their sense of control.

"An individual with low locus of control in this situation will think it's their fault. They will really suffer for that. Even though a dysfunctional organisation is not good for anybody, someone with a robust internal high locus control will have a lot more resilience and be more likely to leave. If they choose to stay it would be about an active choice."

When we're under high stress, we're more likely to go for immediate rewards rather than long-term rewards. "We get tunnel vision, we go into flight, fight or freeze, with the aim of being focused on the sabre-toothed tiger in front of us.

"We get cognitive tunnel vision and don't think strategically or creatively. For most jobs, this can have big implications. It could lead to burnout."

If there's a perceived lack of control, there'll be a lot of stress, it will affect how you are with your colleagues, and even have an effect on your home life.

"It's a vicious cycle of irritability with colleagues, family and friends. We withdraw from them. Often it's an unconscious process — we lose self-awareness."

Stafford says, "It's good to understand though, that if this is happening to you, the more you beat yourself up for it, the more stressed you get. Many people don't realise they're fighting against their brain's natural inclinations. It's the idea you've taken in that you need to work on. It's so important to learn how to work on it, not beat yourself up for it."

She says motivating yourself with punishment works until it does not. "It makes you sick and burnt out. It's important to motivate with reward rather than punishment.

"It's wonderful that companies like Perpetual Guardian have shown that their productivity has risen by 20 per cent. They've maintained their output. This is why it's getting such massive attention."

Stafford says we can change this cycle at a cultural level, workplace and individual level.

Horizons Tracker supplies a quiz to help you decide whether you are addicted to work, see here