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: (i) those viewed as hyper-performers, (ii) those viewed as unhappy and obsessive individuals who do not perform well in their jobs, (iii) those who work as a way of stopping themselves thinking about their emotional and personal lives, and (iv) those who are over concerned with their work and neglect other areas of their lives.
Some researchers in the area 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: (i) spend a great deal of time in work activities, (ii) are preoccupied with work even when they are not working, (iii) work beyond what is reasonably expected from them to meet their job requirements, and (iv) 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.