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Workaholism: are you a victim? - feature

2nd Oct 2002
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Professor Marc Buelens of the People and Organisation Competence Centre, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, looks at how attachment to work can become unhealthy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving your job or going that extra step to complete a project, but when going that extra step gets out of control, to the exclusion of everything else in your life, you could be suffering from ‘workaholism’.

W E Oates coined the term ‘workaholism’ in his 1971 book ‘Confessions of a Workaholic’, when he defined it as an “addiction to work, the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly”.

The competitive working environment that so many of us experience on a day-to-day basis and a business culture that rewards hard work and long hours with healthy pay-cheques, bonuses and promotions, as well as huge technological advances that allow us to work anywhere around the clock, means that the phenomenon of workaholism is even more applicable in today’s society than it was to Oates in the 1970s.

So what is a workaholic?

Workaholics place their work firmly in the centre of their lives and progressively all other aspects of their life, such as family, sport and other interests, are no longer the focus of attention. Workaholics feel the urge to create and respond to self-imposed demands that can, in many cases, be traced back to strong family expectations.

Many workaholics tell themselves that their work is really their hobby, but often working hard is a duty, an external obligation that has to be done, and not a source of enjoyment or self-development.

I work hard: does that make me a workaholic?

It’s important to remember that working hard is very different to over-working, which itself is very different to workaholism. Hard workers do what is necessary to complete a task and once completed are able to relax and take time off. They work long hours on a short term basis with clearly defined goals. When one overworks it is usually a result of having to work, perhaps two jobs or overtime, in order to make ends meet, rather than a compulsion to work which means that Overworkers are normally glad once they can work less.

In contrast, workaholics consistently work long hours, stay late and go into the office on weekends and holidays, even if they do not have any pressing deadlines.

Varying degrees of workaholism

There is no clear cut line between being a workaholic and not. Research by Steve Poelmans from IESE in Barcelona and the People and Organisation Competence Centre at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium has identified a spectrum of eight attitudes to work, ranging from ‘Enthusiastic Work Addicts’ to ‘Unengaged Workers’.

Enthusiastic Addicts work the longest hours and report less private time out of all the groups identified. This group is significantly male and often within high hierarchical positions. Intrinsically motivated by loyalty, self-development and responsibility, they are satisfied with their salary and do not intend to leave their company. However, this group reports many work / family conflicts.

Work Addicts also report long working hours, few sleeping hours and a small number of hours dedicated to non-work activities. Their hierarchical position within their organisation is relatively low, but it is a group where females are strongly represented. This group perceives a low growth, but high pressure culture within their organisation which leads them to report many conflicts at work, as well as many work / family conflicts. They are dissatisfied with all aspects of their current situation, for example, their salary, family situation, relationships at work generally and with their line managers. This group is not strongly motivated and is highly frustrated, reporting a high number of health / stress complaints.

Work Enthusiasts are in all aspects happy workers. This is a dominantly male, high level group that works very long hours, reporting few sleeping hours and not much private time, but is a group that is satisfied with all aspects of their current job and have no intention of leaving.

Reluctant Hard Workers operate at a relatively low hierarchical level and report relatively long working hours. They have a strong perception of pressure within their organisation and have every intention to leave. They are dissatisfied with their salary, their manager and to a lesser extent their colleagues.

The Average Professional Worker is internally driven and is more or less contented with their current position.

Disengaged Workers report the lowest number of working hours and a great deal of private time. They are experiencing low levels of satisfaction and motivation with all aspects of their current job and have every intention of resigning in the near future.

Relaxed workers are the most balanced of all the typologies. They report the highest number of hours dedicated to non-work activities and the highest level of satisfaction with their work / family balance. This is the youngest group and represents a rather low hierarchical level within the organisation.

Unengaged Workers have put all their efforts into their family relationships. They have no perception of pressure, no health or stress complaints and although are not motivated in their job but at the same time have no intention of leaving their current organisation.

The far-reaching impact of workaholism

An individuals’ attitude to work will change depending on a huge range of factors: from not feeling comfortable in their work uniform to not enjoying the project they’re working on. An individuals’ attitude in the workplace will undoubtedly affect their colleagues, particularly in the case of workaholics, and this can put pressure on a manager to identify the most appropriate way to handle the individual and the situation.

Managers have often reported that workaholics are quite unproductive workers, completing unnecessary tasks, needlessly checking and re-checking work and failing to delegate the simplest task. The stress and low morale of working with a workaholic and their inability to collaborate effectively with their team challenges the group dynamic and creates a negative atmosphere in the workplace.

The research from Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School and IESE confirms that there is no one definition of workaholism, so managers must be proactive in identifying the onset of workaholic traits within their organisation. There are a few simple but positive actions that managers can take:

- Encourage other managers within the organisation to have fair and realistic work expectations

- Monitor employee workloads, setting reasonable time scales for projects and tasks and giving adequate time to non-work commitments

- Encourage employees to schedule extra time for projects, allowing for the unexpected

- Discourage employees from taking work home

- Avoid automatically rewarding employees who work longer hours and be aware of subconscious messages managers might give to employees who do leave work on time

- Insist that employees take breaks – whether for coffee, lunch or annual holidays

- Discourage a culture of calling colleagues at home after their scheduled work hours

- Encourage employees to exercise to ease stress;

- Interact with your colleagues away from the office, for example, by organising occasional group outings.

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