The term “workaholism” has been around since the 1971 publication of Wayne Oates’ book Confessions of a Workaholic. But, despite increasing research into the idea, there is still no single concept of this phenomenon. This is problematic for tackling the issue which, if classified as an addiction, should be treated as such.
I’ve found that definitions used by other researchers do not really conceptualise workaholism as an addiction. Or, if they do, the criteria is different to those used when examining other behavioural addictions such as gambling, sex addiction and addictions to exercise or video games.
Various researchers differentiate between positive and negative forms of workaholism. For instance, some view workaholism as a negative and complex process that eventually affects the person’s ability to function properly. Obviously this is bad for business. Others highlight the workaholics who are totally achievement oriented and have perfectionist and compulsive-dependent traits. This too isn’t necessarily good for the company in the long run and certainly not healthy for the individual.
In fact, researchers have found that workaholism can be deadly and dangerous. It may start with being busy with work all the time, but then progress to loss of productivity and relationship breakdowns, then result in workers being hospitalised from the severe stress caused, even causing premature death from heart attacks.
Psychological research into the issue has given us insights into who is more likely to be affected by workaholism. It has shown links between workaholism and certain personality types such as those with “Type A” characteristics (competitive, achievement-oriented individuals) and those with obsessive-compulsive traits. The condition is generally characterised by the number of hours spent working and the inability to detach psychologically from work.
Reliable statistics on the prevalence of workaholism are hard to come by, but a major review of studies up to 2011 shows that about 10% of people in the countries studied suffer from workaholism.
Whether or not workaholism is a bona fide addiction all depends on the operational definition that is used. The only way to determine whether non-chemical, behavioural addictions are addictive is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established drug-driven addictions.
In practice, addictive behaviour is any behaviour that features what I believe are the certain core components of addiction: when it becomes the most important activity in your life, when it controls your mood, when you get withdrawal symptoms from not doing/having it, when you choose it above all other activities and when you keep returning to this state of behaviour.
New work addiction scale
Using these components, some Norwegian colleagues and I have developed a new “work addiction scale”. Using this scale to assess the level of workaholism in Norway, we found that 8% of our participants were addicted to work using this new instrument.
Addictions always result from an interaction and interplay between many factors. These include a person’s biological and genetic makeup, their state of mind, their social environment and the nature of the activity itself. For instance, the nature of work can include things like the type of work you do, how familiar it is, the number of hours you spend doing it per day or week, the flexibility of how work fits into your daily or weekly routine, and the financial rewards it gives.
A work place’s social environment is also very important. It can include the organisation’s overarching work ethos, the relationship dynamics and collegiality that exists between colleagues. Sociability is also influential, with working alone or with others important. So too are the aesthetics of the working environment and the physical comfort of the workspace. If inappropriate, these factors can contribute to and facilitate excessive working that in some individuals may lead to a genuine addiction.
While employers may like (and in some instances actively encourage) workaholism, in the long run it is not good for business. Ultimately, workaholics are more likely to burn out, have heart attacks and be hospitalised. While all employers will value highly productive individuals, the short-term benefits of having employees who are workaholics will likely be outweighed if they can no longer function due to health problems, exacerbated by excessive working.