A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Work Addiction

Is the workaholic a hero or a sad addict? Should we condemn work ethusiasts?

Thank God it’s Monday! People seem pretty divided about their attitude to working hours. A vocal, vociferous, often trade union inspired group laments our slavish dedication to work. The long hours culture destroying health, happiness, family life, blah, blah.

The data show that we work many fewer hours than our parents or grandparents. Some have defined excessive working hours as over 48 per week. In the Industrial Revolution a 60 hour week was the norm. Most data from Western countries have shown a steady decrease over the past fifty years particularly for less educated blue collar workers. Interestingly there has been a slight increase for educated, professional, pale males.

But there are those who apparently thrive at work. They volunteer to stay on not on overtime, but for the joy of the activity. No work life balance for them. Being balanced is staying at work where there is order, support, achievement.

There is evidence (mainly from blue collar workers) that long hours are bad for both the individual and the company. Poor physical and mental health, accidents and poor decisions. Some empirical data induced that a 60 hour week increased accidents by a third.

But of course it does depend on the job. The demands-control model is simple to grasp and very important. It differentiates between demands on time, effort, concentration, and control over when, how, where, you work. So we have the best (low demands, high control) to passive (low on both) to active (high, high) to the worst (high demands, low control) In the latter high strain jobs, overtime is a demand, a requirement.

Tired employees often find it hard to relax. In order to “come down” quickly they may abuse alcohol and eat badly. They see less of friends and family who may be their best source of social support and who turn quite quickly into a major additional source of stress.

But try telling that to the highly committed, achievement-oriented, dedicated worker. There seem to be four motives for voluntary long hours and hard work:

• Work as its own reward, work as fun, pleasure, intrinsically satisfying.

• Work as emotional respite from home: a calm, undemanding place of emotional stability, predictability and order compared to the very opposite at home.

• Work-leisure trade off where you have to work hard to earn the money needed to spend on expensive, but ultimately very satisfying leisure.

• Social contagion where everyone around works incredibly long hours making it seem quite normal.

 

Others have distinguished between the addict and the enthusiast. Addicts feel driven, enthusiasts not. It all depends on drive. Workaholics can be obsessive-compulsive, perfectionistic or achievement oriented. The first two have problems, the last less so. In essence then, one can be an adjusted, happy functional workaholic (rather rare) or the sad, dysfunctional, angry, unhappy type.

But when is a heavy worker a workaholic? It’s the same definitional problem with booze. At what point, and with what behaviours, is it thought of as seriously and unhealthily addictive? It could be defined in terms of amount. Over 50 hours per week and you’re an addict. This would make a terrifying number of us (helpless) addicts. Others provide a more psychological definition:

• “Those who devote more time, attention and thought to their work than the situation demands”.

• “Those who become emotionally crippled and addicted to approval, control, power and success”.

• “Those with a chronic inability to regulate work habits and over-indulge in work to the exclusion of all else”.

• “Those compelled or driven to over-work by inner pressures, despite low enjoyment at the tasks”.

Studies on workaholics showed they held various beliefs. ‘Work is about win-lose not win-win’. ‘ nice guys finish last’; ‘you prove yourself at work’. They strive against others and certain targets.

Needless to say many workaholics have lower psychological well-being, poor extra-work relationships and near disastrous family functioning.

The work enthusiast is different from the work-addict. The latter have lower self-esteem and feel they need to prove themselves. They believe their organisation disapproves of a good work-life balance. They feel driven. They work in ways which increase work stress for themselves and others. The workaholic: inadequate, non-delegating, perfectionistic, friendless control freaks?

Of course workaholism can be triggered and maintained by job insecurity, limited career opportunities, work overload, understaffing and a competitive corporate culture.

So should we have clinics, drying out centres for recovering workaholics? Should we sit round in circles supporting each other to do “one day at a time”? Should we seek to be home at 18.00, laptop-less and baby bath oriented? Should we condemn the workaholic and tax overtime? Questions worth discussing.

 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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