Workaholism: Healthy enthusiasm or an addiction?

As someone who is often called a ‘workaholic’ by both my friends and colleagues, I have always been interested in whether people can be genuinely addicted to their jobs. The term ‘workaholism’ has been around for over 40 years since the publication of Wayne Oates’ 1971 book Confessions of a Workaholic, and has now passed into the public mainstream. Despite four decades of research into workaholism, no single definition or conceptualization of this phenomenon has emerged. Much of the work into the area has used operational definitions that do not conceptualize workaholism as an addiction or if they do conceptualize it as an addiction, the criteria used are somewhat dissimilar to the criteria used when examining other behavioural addictions such as gambling addiction, Internet addiction, sex addiction, exercise addiction, video game addiction, etc.

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of workaholism are hard to come by, although some researchers claim that one in four employed people are workaholics. It has also been claimed that amongst professional groups, the rate of workaholism is high especially in occupations such as medicine. As a result they work long hours, rarely delegate, expend high effort, and may not necessarily be more productive.

Workaholics have been conceptualized in different ways. For instance, workaholics are typically viewed as one (or a combination) of the following:

  • Those viewed as hyper-performers
  • Those viewed as unhappy and obsessive individuals who do not perform well in their jobs
  • Those who work as a way of stopping themselves thinking about their emotional and personal lives
  • Those who are over concerned with their work and neglect other areas of their lives.

Some authors note that there is a behavioural component and a psychological component to workaholism. The behavioural component comprises working excessively hard (i.e., a high number of hours per day and/or week), whereas the psychological (dispositional) component comprises being obsessed with work (i.e., working compulsively and being unable to detach from work. This may sometimes be accompanied by other characteristics such as low work enjoyment.

There are those scholars who differentiate between positive and negative forms of workaholism. For instance, some view workaholism as both a negative and complex process that eventually affects the person’s ability to function properly. In contrast, others highlight the workaholics who are totally achievement oriented and have perfectionist and compulsive-dependent traits. Workaholics appear to have a compulsive drive to gain approval and success but it can result in impaired judgment and personality breakdowns.

In relation to studies of workaholism, the most widely employed empirical approach proposes three underlying dimensions. These are (i) work involvement, (ii) drive, and (iii) work enjoyment. I have noted in my own writings on the topic that what starts out as love of work can often end up with the person developing perfectionist and obsessional traits. Some have argued that workaholism can be deadly and dangerous with an onset (e.g., busyness), a progression (e.g., loss of productivity, relationships etc.), and a conclusion (e.g., hospitalization or death from a heart attack). Others have argued that the final stage of workaholism is narcissism, often characterised by a complete loss of compassion and empathy. Furthermore, psychological research has shown links between workaholism and personality types including those with Type A Behaviour Patterns (i.e., competitive, achievement-oriented individuals) and those with obsessive-compulsive traits.

Research appears to indicate there are three central characteristics of workaholics. In short, they typically:

  • Spend a great deal of time in work activities
  • Are preoccupied with work even when they are not working
  • Work beyond what is reasonably expected from them to meet their job requirements.
  • Spend more time working because of an inner compulsion, rather than because of any external factors.

Workaholism as a syndrome is characterized by the number of hours spent on work, and the inability to detach psychologically from work. Although these features of workaholism appear to have good face validity, I have argued in a number of my papers that the amount of activity engaged in is not necessarily a core feature of addiction.

Some in the field view workaholism as much a ‘system addiction’ as an individual one. Although the manifestations of workaholism are at the level of the individual, workaholic behaviour is socially acceptable and even encouraged by major organizations. Organizations can potentially facilitate addictive work in a number of ways. For employees, an organization can provide the structure and/or the mechanisms and dynamics for both the addictive substance (e.g., adrenalin) and/or the process (i.e., work itself). I have argued that for someone working too much, it makes little practical difference if they are dependent or addicted. In relation to excessive work, the public understands notions of ‘addiction’ and ‘workaholism’ and these are therefore still very useful constructs for both academic (research) and educational purposes.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Matuska, K.M. (2010). Workaholism, life balance, and well-being: A comparative analysis. Journal of Occupational Science, 17, 104-111.

Schaufeli, W.B., Taris, T.W., & Bakker, A.B. (2006). Doctor Jekyll or Mr Hyde? On the differences between work engagement and workaholism. In R. Burke (Ed.), Workaholism and long working hours (pp. 193-217). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

van Beek, I., T.W., Taris, & Schaufeli, W.B. (2011). Workaholic and work engaged employees: Dead ringers or worlds apart? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16, 468-482.

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About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 430 research papers, three books, over 120 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 6, 2012, in Addiction, Psychology, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Mark

    I’m off this particular topic a bit I’m afraid but I was wondering about psychic powers and gambling. I’ve just thrown down the Dysology Prize gauntlet to Dr Rupert Sheldrake regarding his latest claims in his latest book – and in the Daily Mail yesterday – that we all have psychic powers. I was wondering has any long-term beating of the odds successful gambler ever claimed or proven that their success was due to psychic ability? I think you can see where I’m going with this….its another test like the Randi Prize that provides a major disconfirming example of psychic ability. I mean, how come all these mediums are not in the bookies rather than sitting behind grubby curtains in grubby houses conning the vulnerable out of money they can not afford to lose. How come Rupert Sheldrake has not won the Randi Prize? Will Sheldrake take up the Dysology Challenge? See: http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/biology/dysology-challenge-for-proof-of-psychic-powers

  2. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive learn anything like this before. So good to search out anyone with some authentic ideas on this subject. realy thanks for beginning this up. this web site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality. helpful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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