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Evaluation of the Workaholism Concept

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4613 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Evaluation of the Workaholism Concept 

Many people have become habitualised to working extremely long hours, either in the pursuit of success or to show their importance like a badge of honour. As Seppala (2014), states “Work addiction — unlike addictions involving alcohol or other substances — is rewarded by our culture (with promotions, bonuses, praise, awards, and so on) and therefore considered a good thing”. Additionally, advancing technology permits access to email or similar, meaning we are “always on”, allowing us to work remotely and increasing work hours. The latest OECD (2016) data highlights the growing population working over 60 hours per week, including over 20 million in Turkey, and over 10 million Americans and South Koreans alone. Asian cultures have a reputation of working harder than Westernised cultures (OECD, 2016). In Japan, they even have a word “karoshi” which means working oneself to death. The Japanese government in reaction to ongoing negative media headlines are now working to deliver better work-life balance, by limiting overtime hours annually (Hurst, 2018). Yet, the media still criticises our younger generations for not working hard enough.

This paper explores workaholism, by analysing the growing research; by reviewing the varying meanings of the construct and looking at probable causes and prevalence within society, review current assessments and interventions on offer, and lastly, suggest future directions.

What is Workaholism

Nearly 50 years ago Oates (as cited in Griffiths, 2004) defined workaholism as “addiction to work, the compulsive and uncontrollable need to work incessantly”.  Since then some have labelled workaholism by hours worked (Mosier, 1983) or attitude towards work (Griffiths, 2011). Some believe that workaholism is a positive quality with their investment and energy directed into work, often leading to greater success and higher career satisfaction (Ng, Eby, Sorensen & Feldman, 2005). Others label it as an obsession, with compulsive and unyielding behaviours, leading to negative outcomes, like diminished well-being and increased family conflicts (Andreassen, 2013). But there is still no agreed meaning of the construct or agreement as to the theorical or empirical foundation underlying the construct (Van Wijhe, Peeters, Schaufeli, & Van den Hout, 2011). 

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A Workaholic or a Hard Worker?

Over the years, researchers have defined different types of workaholics to determine the underlying psychological mechanisms. For example, Scott, Moore and Miceli (1997) suggested the compulsive-dependent, the perfectionist and the achievement-oriented types of workaholic. While Robinson (2013) suggested the bulimic, the savouring, the relentless and the attention-deficit. Yet, others have suggested this construct is multi-dimensional, and utilise tendencies such as compulsion, control, inability to delegate and lack of self-worth (Flowers & Robinson, 2002). It seems there is a distinction between those who have a choice to work hard and those who feel compelled to work (Bonebright, Clay & Ankenmann, 2000). Those choosing to work hard typically find great joy and contentment in their work, while those who are internally driven tend to derive little pressure from their excessive work ethic (Spence & Robbins,1992). Based on Spence and Robbins, (1992) workaholic triad of work involvement, enjoyment and inner drive (compulsion), and then Buelens and Poelmans (2004) refinement of the former’s typographies, for the purpose of this paper, we have designated those who derive intrinsic pleasure by happily choosing to work longer hours and are heavily invested in their work to be “Hard Workers” (HW). Whereas those who show greater compulsion to work, but are not necessarily enthusiastic about it, but still heavily invested to be designated “Workaholics” (WH) It is important to distinguish between the two conditions because of the differing outcomes. For example, those labelled WH often show greater guilt, anxiety, and anger, leading to a negative impact on family life, whereas HW’s were found to be happier, attentive and confident, leading to enriched family life (Clark, Michel, Stevens, Howell, & Scruggs, 2014). HW have also been shown to maintain higher energy levels and resilience (Van Beek, Taris, & Schaufeli, 2011). Whereas, WH suffer from more ill-health (Schaufeli, Taris, & Bakker 2006), poorer well-being, including burnout, and strain (Andreassen, Ursin, & Eriksen, 2007; Burke, 1999), sleep issues (Salanova, López-González, Llorens, Del Líbano, Vicente-Herrero, & Tomás-Salvá, 2016) and greater marriage breakdowns (Robinson, Flowers, & Carroll, 2001).

It is suggested that time and effort (investment) represents a behavioural psychological mechanism and is consistent for both conditions, but there are many other theories on why people are workaholics (Van Beek, Taris, & Schaufeli, 2011).

Suggested Theories of Workaholism

Some suggest WH shares similar behaviours to that of other addictions and is the result of an obsessive internal drive work that represents a cognitive psychological mechanism and not a result of external factors (McMillan & O’Driscoll, 2006; Schaufeli, Taris, & Bakker, 2008).  This addiction viewpoint utilises a two-dimensional framework (psychological and medical) to understand its etiology. With the psychological aspect assuming that workaholics were addicted to their work because of the benefits it brings (Eysenck, 1997), and biologically, but with little evidence to support this notion, a brain chemical dependency (McMillan & O’Driscoll, 2006). It could be argued that for workaholism to be classified as an addiction, it would be appropriate to compare it against similar clinical criteria for DSM established addictions. To date, most researchers have failed to operationalise it in this way, leading to scepticism about its addictive component (Griffiths, 2005; Wojdylo, 2015). However, Griffiths, (2005), suggested that there were six core components often found in WH that are relevant to addiction, being: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse, and therefore, warranting the need for further investigation. In contrast, Wojdylo (2013) theorised workaholism to be work craving, with WH craving the emotion compensation found when their work is complete, driven by their perfectionism and unrealistic standards. This theory also fits the HW who is relentless to do things better and be more successful than others.

In her early work Fassel (1990) suggested the organisation cultivated workaholics by placing high expectations on employees to work hard, work overtime, and avoid vacation time, with these drivers being led by key personnel (also workaholics) within the organisation. For example, if workers didn’t comply with the culture, the options were to quit or be terminated for failing to make the organisations performance ideals (Douglas, & Morris, 2006). This is supported by the theory that workaholism is a result of operant learning, with the desired behavioural outcomes reinforced through praise or reward (McMillan, O’Driscoll, & Burke, 2003).  This theory supports the earlier example of the Japanese who are working themselves to death, this situation was socially cultivated by government and business in the late 1800’s when they set their sights on “catching up with the West” (Chang, 1995). Additionally, recent research has shown that women have a higher risk of workaholism compared to men, it could be suggested that women, like the Japanese, are now working harder to prove themselves against men in the workplace (Palumbo et al., 2017; Ravoux, et al., 2018).

Contrary to WH, the HW show absorption, dedication and vigour in their work, rather than an addictively based behaviour (Schaufeli, Salanova, González-Romá, & Bakker, 2002). With vigour resulting in higher levels of energy, and more persistence and resilience. The dedicated HW experiences pride and significant work outcomes, resulting in enthusiasm and being engrossed in one’s work (absorption) (Schaufeli et al., 2002). In fact, these workers in contrast to the WH, play just as hard as they work with research showing a positive correlation between accomplishment and leisure (Aarssen, & Crimi, 2016). A popular belief, yet poorly researched is that workaholism is a result of workers role modelling the behaviours of influential leaders (Barush, 2011). It can be said that HW try to role model the successful people they want to emulate, such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, or even in sport, Kobe Bryant who are driven to excessive work hours because they love what they do and want to be successful.

In spite of having a reputation for being lazy, a recent study on our fastest growing workforce, Millennials (born post 1981), found they are increasingly becoming workaholics (Project:Time off, 2017). It has been speculated that increasing Narcissism is the cause of this change. A longitudinal study exploring the statement “I am an important person” found 12% of high school students in the 1950’s to be ‘an important person’ compared to 80% in the late 1990’s (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Keith Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). This notion supports the theory that specific traits and personality underlie workaholism. Some of these traits include perfectionism, compulsiveness and obstinacy (Mudrack, 2004), and in personality; conscientiousness (Clark, Livesley, Schroeder, & Irish, 1996), neuroticism (Burke, Matthiesen, & Pallesen, 2006), as well as an obsessive-compulsive personality, and perfectionism (Clark, Lelchook, & Taylor, 2010; Mudrack, 2004; Spence & Robbins, 1992).

Like role modelling, Robinson, 1998, believed that family systems theory is also responsible for workaholism with addictive behaviours being passed down generations by family rules, patterns or beliefs. Similarly, the cognitive paradigm has been explored, with workaholism a result of distorted believes about self and the world, brought about by impactful events or experiences (McMillan & O’Driscoll, 2008). As shown, there are differing theories for differing situations, which means any testing could be problematic.

Assessing for Workaholism

The most common scale currently used to assess workaholism is the Workaholism Battery (WorkBAT; Spence & Robbins, 1992), a 25-item questionnaire asking based on three attributes being work involvement, enjoyment and inner drive (compulsion). Other scales include the Work Addiction Risk Test (WART; Robinson, 1999) another 25-item questionnaire which use the multi-dimensional approach about compulsive tendencies, control, impaired communication/self-absorption, inability to delegate, and impaired self-worth; and the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS) (Andreassen Ursin, Eriksen, & Pallesen, 2012) based on Griffiths’ (2005) addiction model.

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However, with workaholism being a poorly defined construct, any scales currently on offer are flawed.  Constructs help explain the components of theories and measure the behaviour, but when there are misunderstandings, future theory and practical implications can be negatively impacted. Similarly, some labels hold social and economic implications and can sway perceptions, for instance, some research has found workaholics to be high performers and assets to organisations (Burke, 2001) while others have found them to be detrimental to an organisational profit and productivity (Swider & Zimmerman, 2010). These threats to construct validity and inferences made about relationships between the construct and its results by current assessments could be considered lacking (Messick, 1995), making possible proposed treatments ill-fitting.


To date, research has provided little evidence to effectively overcome workaholism. Recommendations for preventive actions include, changing organisational culture, enforcing vacations and reducing permitted overtime. Secondly, building resilience, teaching time-management skills and social skills for those at risk of becoming WH (Swider & Zimmerman, 2010). As Baruch, (2011) suggests career counseling may offer the opportunity for a WH to convert to HW by reaching happiness within their career.

Regarding treatment, a systematic review of research found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to create behavioural change to be the best intervention to date (Andreassen, 2013). However, this treatment assumes workaholism to be a result of faulty cognitive beliefs and therefore, may not be relevant to the HW (Van Wijhe, Schaufeli, & Peeters, 2010). In a similar vein, a Mood as Input (MAI) Model was created which employs ‘Stop’ rules, by asking questions to self, such as, “Am I still enjoying the task” to aid in reduction of work hours, with some success (Van Wijhe, Schaufeli, & Peeters, 2010). 

Regardless, there are few studies that compare differing treatments to obtain a gold standard (Van Wijhe, Schaufeli, & Peeters, 2010). With contradictory psychological, physiological, and social outcomes and advances in neuroscience, it would be pertinent to investigate workaholism by utilising MRI techniques which allows snapshots of the brain under the differing conditions.

The Future

It is this authors opinion that CBT may change the behaviour of WH, but it will never change the work ethic of HW. Given that working enjoyment or enthusiasm is the main point of difference, investigation should be undertaken to discover how WH can enjoy their jobs more and thus, promote positive outcomes.  As Baruch, (2011) suggested using his chocoholism metaphor, if there are no significant issues caused by being a workaholic it may be best to leave the choice to the individual. This suggestion reflects the current move towards ‘positive psychology’ which focusses on building strengths, rather than weaknesses (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As these authors comment; psychology has long chosen to investigate negative aspects, rather than what makes life worthwhile. Given HW reap positive benefits, we need to understand the reasons behind the positive outcomes to assist the WH.


With workaholism being an inconclusive construct, we suggest that workaholism be studied from a changed perspective, and one that doesn’t focus on the negative outcomes.  For example, studying workaholism from an ‘approach to work’ perspective, to gain greater understanding of why some workaholics experience positive outcomes. Workaholism will remain an important investigation topic due to changes currently occurring in the workplace, such as laws, generational change, gender or technology. Similarly, technology advancement, means it is an opportune time to research workaholism using more sophisticated and technological advanced methods. Maybe the question we should be working to answer – how can we halt the constant need for success?


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