Workaholism is a popular term used to describe individuals who are captivated by work. The term workaholic was first coined more than 30 years ago to refer to an individual whose increased need to work hinders one or more life functions. Over the years it has become a colloquial term used increasingly in the popular press, on Web sites, and in the scientific literature. The philosophy of squeezing more of everything into a single 24-hour day has become an accepted way of life. In fact, working excessive hours is often seen as a prerequisite for success. As a result it appears that some individuals may find it extremely difficult to release themselves from work, even when they are given the opportunity to do so.
Although the term workaholism has become commonplace, unfortunately, there has been little empirical research (and consensus) examining what it means when someone is referred to as a workaholic. The modest amount of existing research has been done in a fragmentary manner; without a common definition, it becomes challenging to develop a holistic picture of workaholism. Definitional issues pertaining to workaholism are summarized in the following text.
A commonly held perspective is that workaholism is simply an extreme form of job involvement. Although the two constructs have been considered synonymous in the practitioner literature, job involvement is clearly distinct from workaholism in that job involvement has an attitudinal component regarding work, whereas workaholism refers to behavioral patterns and an overall outlook on work. High job involvement does not necessarily relate to workaholism in that workers might be highly engaged in their jobs and consider work as a key element in their lives; but they may not be workaholics (e.g., they can still leave work at the end of an eight-hour day and not think about it until returning to work the next day). Hence, workaholism is not merely an extreme case of job involvement.
In an attempt to define workaholism, some researchers have placed a quantitative requirement on its borders in that the total number of hours worked per week determines workaholic tendencies. Surprisingly, the literature has generally shown that hours worked alone do not indicate a workaholic. Many external reasons, such as the need for money or the organizational climate (i.e., overall atmosphere of the organization), may account for the long work hours. Therefore, perhaps workaholics are (in part) those individuals who are intrinsically motivated to work long hours because of an inability to disengage from work.
Other researchers have highlighted the opposite end of the continuum such as attitudes and value-based characteristics of workaholism. These researchers conceptualize workaholism in terms of the attitude of the worker in regard to the job including enthusiasm, commitment, and involvement. Another emergent body of literature has defined workaholism as consisting of three behavioral tendencies:
- Spending discretionary time in work activities
- Thinking about work when not at work
- Working beyond organizational or economic requirements
Despite the plethora of definitions considered to describe workaholism, Janet Spence and Ann Robbins’s instrument is by far the most frequently used self-report measure of workaholism. Similar to other recent conceptualizations of workaholism, their scale consists of three factors that constitute workaholism:
- Excessive work involvement
- Drivenness to work
- Lack of work enjoyment
Work involvement refers to the extent to which individuals constructively use their time (both on and off the job) and dedicate themselves to productivity at work. Drivenness to work reflects an individual’s internal drive to work. Work enjoyment is the degree to which an individual derives pleasure from work.
Why should we care?
Workaholism is detrimental to individual well-being, causing stress, burnout, anxiety, and health complaints. Additionally, workaholics are more prone to such secondary addictions as alcoholism and overeating. Workaholism may also affect the lives of the people with whom the workaholic employee is associated. Excessive engagement in work is likely to disrupt work-life balance, such as balancing both personal and family needs with work demands, and may hinder interpersonal relationships. In fact, spouses and children of workaholics feel lonely, unloved, and emotionally or physically abandoned; workaholism puts a strain on marital relations and is a leading cause of divorce. Finally, workaholism results in negative organizational outcomes (e.g., absenteeism, turnover). In fact, the high (and likely unrealistic) standards set by workaholic managers could lead to resentment, conflict, and low morale among coworkers. The excessive costs of workaholism to the self, the family, and the organization itself warrant that individuals pay closer attention to this crucial concept.
In the medical field, a syndrome refers to a cluster of symptoms occurring on a regular basis and thus constituting a disease to which some particular name is applied. The concept of a syndrome has been used in psychological research to characterize, among many other areas, burnout, effects of physical abuse in women, and posttraumatic stress. For example, burnout is characterized as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Hence, people who experience burnout feel these characteristics in tandem.
Similarly, the workaholic is portrayed by a set of distinct characteristics. In this sense workaholism is also conceptualized as a multifaceted syndrome in that a set of key components characterizes the workaholic. Employees who experience high work involvement, high drive to work, and low work enjoyment in conjunction with each other are more likely to be workaholics than those who just experience a subset of the symptoms. For workaholism to truly be a syndrome, each of the three components is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for somebody to be classified as a workaholic.
A large stream of research has found that typical variables associated with workaholism include job involvement, work stress, and work-life imbalance. The empirical literature has also shown that workaholics experience less job and life satisfaction than nonworkaholics. To create effective intervention programs, it is imperative that both the correlates and symptoms of workaholism be taken into account by mental health professionals and career counselors. A dimensional focus enables practitioners and their clients to examine specific correlates of workaholism instead of the global construct. For example, in terms of work-life balance, it is imperative that workplace standards be more supportive of balanced priorities and healthier lifestyles to encourage those workaholics who strive to make behavioral changes.
- Harpaz, I., & Snir, R. (2003). Workaholism: Its definition and nature. Human Relations, 56, 291-319.
- McMillan, L. H. W., Brady, E. C., O’Driscoll, M. P., & Marsh, N. V. (2002). A multifaceted validation study of Spence and Robbins’ (1992) Workaholism Battery. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 75, 357-368.
- Mudrack, P. E., & Naughton, T. J. (2001). The assessment of workaholism as behavioral tendencies: Scale development and preliminary empirical testing. International Journal of Stress Management, 8, 93-111.
- Spence, J. T., & Robbins, A. S. (1992). Workaholism: Definition, measurement, and preliminary results. Journal of Personality Assessment, 58, 160-178.