do you spot a workaholic and what harm can they do to your company? This
eight-point guide to the degrees of work obsession will help you to identify
them. Marc Buelens reports
There is 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’.
WE 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 the pressure to achieve a solid work-life balance means
that the phenomenon of workaholism is even more applicable in today’s society
than it was to Oates’ in the 1970s.
Add to this 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.
What exactly 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
I work hard: does that make me a workaholic?
It’s important to remember that working hard is very different to
overworking, 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 an individual overworks, it is usually a result of having to work
perhaps two jobs or overtime, in order to make ends meet. This is in contrast
to having 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
the People and Organisation Competence Centre at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management
School, in Belgium, and Steve Poelmans from IESE in Barcelona, has identified a
spectrum of eight attitudes to work (listed below left) that range 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 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 – their
salary,family situation, relationships at work generally and with their line
managers, for example. This group is not strongly motivated and is highly
frustrated, reporting a high number of health/stress complaints.
Work enthusiasts are happy workers in every aspect. 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 to leave.
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
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 experience 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 types. They report the highest
number of hours dedicated to non-work activities and 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 they are not motivated in their job, they still have
no intention of leaving their current organisation.
How to handle workaholics in the workplace
As a manager, it sounds tempting to capitalise on workaholic behaviour from
employees – just think of the increased productivity and mounting profits. But
consider the potential impact on the organisation and the workaholic’s team and
Managers have often reported that workaholics are often quite unproductive
workers, completing unnecessary tasks, needlessly checking and rechecking work
and failing to delegate the simplest task. The stress and low morale of
workaholics and their inability to collaborate effectively with their team,
challenges the group dynamic and creates a negative atmosphere in the
In fact, there are solid reasons why an organisation should instead promote
a work-life balance among its employees – not least to counterbalance any signs
of workaholism among the workforce. Kevin Friery, director of counselling at
Right Corecare, an employee wellbeing consultancy (part of Right Management
Consultants), identifies some of the benefits of improved work-life balance for
– Improved morale among employees
– Higher retention of valuable skilled employees
– Reduction of absenteeism
– Greater continuity of employees
– Improved productivity
– A competitive edge as an ’employer of choice’
– Long-term cost saving, for example, through reduced sickness absence
Deep personal reasons to work
Sue Binks, partner at MaST International, a training and development
consultancy, argues that employers have a responsibility to encourage work-life
balance among employees. "Everyone has different motivations to work. For
the workaholic, there may be some very deep, personal reasons why they do what
"In some ways, the organisation does not have the right to interfere
with an individual’s motivation to work. However, where the organisation does
have a right, indeed a responsibility, is in the area of health and safety at
If an individual is beginning to show serious signs of stress, then the
organisation has a duty of care towards that individual. This is becoming more
and more of an issue, especially as the expectations and targets set for people
are more and more challenging," she says.
In addition to the mental pressures that the workaholic experiences, they
are also prone to physical symptoms. Continued overwork creates surges of
adrenaline within the body, putting particular pressure on the heart and
contributing to conditions such as high blood pressure, the risk of heart
attacks, strokes, anxiety attacks and ulcers.
Friery adds: "In Japan, and increasingly worldwide, there is a
diagnosis of Karoshi (death through overwork), which has been recognised since
the 1990s. In fact, there were cases reported in Europe in the 1880s, when
normal working routine for some people exceeded 16 hours a day.
"Heart disease, cerebral haemorrhage and strokes are among the reported
symptoms, as well as psychological disturbances ranging from depression to
psychosis. An employer would not allow an alcoholic to exercise his or her
addiction at work – the same should hold true of workaholism," he says.
"It is important to understand that a workaholic is not a ‘willing
worker’, but is an addict who is in need of help and treatment," he adds.
Professor Marc Buelens, is a partner at People and Organisation
Competence Centre, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School
Worker types: it’s all about attitudes
involvement ‘Drive’ for the job Work enjoyment
Enthusiastic work addicts High High High
Work addicts High High Low
Work enthusiasts High Low High
Reluctant hard workers High Low Low
‘Average’ professionals Low High High
Disenchanted workers Low High Low
Relaxed workers Low Low High
Unengaged workers Low Low Low
Beware the burnout trap
Prior to joining one of the top three management consulting
practices, James Hunt had been head of IT for a major UK company. He made the
switch to consulting with high expectations of learning about leading edge
technologies and developing a professional approach to project work.
"At the interview and on the induction course, the company
stressed what they called ‘work-lifestyle balance’, which was a ‘5-4-3’
approach of five days work, four days with the client and three days maximum
away from home. On my first project, it was clear the rhetoric didn’t match the
reality and clients expected me to be available every hour of the day. An
unforgettable quote from one client was: ‘You’re on football players’ rates, we
"Another example was during a large software project. The
client was unhappy about what was being delivered, so the team of 20 people –
all of whom had been working away from home for a couple of months – had their
weekends cancelled until the problem was solved.
There was no debate in the matter. It was in the interest of
the project leader to ‘drive the guts out’ of us. I was putting in 60-70-hour
weeks, but was told it wasn’t in my interest to declare my full number of
hours, because it would blow the project budget.
"The work pressure and the long hours meant that the
quality of my work inevitably suffered, as well as having repercussions on my
personal life. I found it impossible to rest and was not happy at home. I
eventually went for counselling, and during the first session, the counsellor
agreed this was not the career for me.
"I’ve now moved into a teaching role with a major
accountancy tutor organisation. Although I’m on roughly half my previous
salary, the positive work environment, the opportunities for personal and team
development and the additional time I’m able to spend with my family means that
I truly do have a work-life balance."
Pam Calvert, managing director of Communications Management, a
reputation management consultancy, is a self-confessed reformed workaholic.
"When I set up my business 15 years ago, I worked 16-hour days, seven days
a week. I have always found my work interesting and engaging, so I wasn’t
unhappy with the work-life balance I was striking, but I did recognise that
without redressing the balance, I would soon reach burnout. I also think the
responsibility of running my own business was a significant factor that
compelled me to work so hard. I felt that I needed to be available all of the
time, but by building a strong management team and growing the business
infrastructure, I gave myself the confidence to take my mind completely off
What HR should do
Discouraging a workaholic culture
The research from Vlerick Leuven Gent
Management School and IESE confirms that there is no one definitive definition
of workaholism, so HR managers must be proactive in identifying the onset of
workaholism within their organisation in order to encourage a healthy work
style among employees.
Some tips for doing this include:
– Encourage 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
– Insist that employees take breaks – whether for coffee, lunch
or their annual holiday
– Be aware of subconscious messages managers might be giving to
employees who do leave work on time
– Discourage a culture of calling employees at home after their
scheduled work hours
– Encourage workers to exercise to ease stress
– Encourage employees to interact off the job, for example, by
organising occasional group outings
– Make overtime the exception, not the rule