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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Workaholism represents a compulsive need to work excessively. This tendency, unsurprisingly, tends to provoke burnout and impair wellbeing.

Research has uncovered some interesting insights. For example, workaholism is correlated with the imposter phenomenon (Ross & Krukowski, 2003)--the tendency of some individuals to feel like a fake or fraud when they achieve some success.

Correlates of workaholism

Burnout and wellbeing

Many studies have shown that workaholism is associated with burnout, represented by exhaustion, depersonalization, and limited feelings of accomplishment (e.g., Andreassen, Ursin, & Eriksen, 2007& Burke, 2008). Presumably, these individuals devote undue effort to work, but do not experience sufficient opportunities to recover, which elicits burnout (see Effort recovery model).

Burnout might be amplified by the inability of individuals to enjoy leisure time. These individuals might not be able to relax during discretionary activities (see Cherrington, 1980). Leisure time is often perceived as not enjoyable in workaholics (e.g., Iso-Ahola & Weissinger, 1990). Similarly, Brady, Vodanovich, and Rotunda (2008) showed that workaholism was positively associated with boredom during leisure activities, as gauged by items like "For me, leisure time just drags on".

Similarly, workaholism is inversely related to various indices of wellbeing. Individuals who work excessively and obsessively experience diminished levels of happiness or subjective wellbeing (Burke, 2008& Burke & Koskal, 2002). Also, job satisfaction tends to decline (Aziz & Zickar, 2006). Arguably, workaholism coincides with implausible goals, which elicits persistent levels of stress and thus biases evaluations, especially if recover is stifled.

Workaholism is negatively related to physical health as well, including ulcers and chest pain (Buelens & Poelmans, 2004& Fassel, 1990& Schaufeli, Taris, & Bakker, 2006). In particular, individuals who demonstrate workaholism may feel too busy to furnish their health needs (Trueman, 1995, cited by Chamberlin & Zhang, 2009). Consistent with this possibility, Chamberlin and Zhang (2009) showed that individuals who exhibited workaholism also reported more health complaints and symptoms.

Demands at work and home

Job demands are often elevated in employees who demonstrate workaholism. Specifically, these individuals often refuse to delegate work or attempt to complete tasks more extensively than necessary (Burke, 2001). As a consequence, workload and other job demands are often excessive in these individuals (see Burke, 2000& Burke & Koksal, 2002& Kanai & Wakabayashi, 2001).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, and Prins (2009a), participants completed scales that assess both the extent to which they work and their compulsion to work. Participants who demonstrated elevated levels on both of these features of workaholism were compared to participants who demonstrated lower levels on one or both of these features. The participants who demonstrated elevated levels on both of these features, and were thus designated as workaholics, were more likely to experience mentally demanding work, represented by items like "Does your work demand a lot of concentration". They also experienced more emotionally demanding work, endorsing questions like "(My) work (puts me) in emotionally upsetting situations". These workaholic participants also experienced more role conflict. They felt they could not readily fulfill the requirements of their medical role and training at the same time.

The problems associated with workaholism often extend beyond the work environment. Conflict between the demands of work and home are, unsurprisingly, often elevated (e.g., Aziz & Zickar, 2006& Bakker, Demerouti, & Burke, 2009).

Opportunities at work

In employees who both work excessively and feel a compulsion to work, opportunities and resources at work are also deficient. In these employees, relative to their colleagues, job control is limited. These individuals do not feel they are granted the autonomy to control their work environment or participate in key decisions. In addition, these individuals feel that opportunities to learn and develop are limited. Finally, both feedback about coaching and coaching is deficient (see Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, Prins, 2009a).

Conceivably, individuals who report workaholism strive only to demonstrate excellent performance rather than develop their competence, which curbs their pursuit of development, feedback, and coaching. Alternatively, the absence of these opportunities could reduce the capacity of individuals to access their core values, which in turn might promote workaholism. Hence, the direction of causality has not been established definitively.

Social relationships

Social relationships, particularly in the work environment, also seem to be impaired in employees who report workaholism (Schaufeli, Taris, & Van Rhenen, 2008). They receive less social support from colleagues, feeling they cannot seek guidance or assistance from anyone else (Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, & Prins, 2009a). That is, because of their obsessive dedication to their work, and sometimes their need to demonstrate their competence, these individuals often do not utilize social resources, such as advice or support (e.g., Mudrack, 2006).

Social relationships outside work are also impaired. Marital difficulties, even culminating in estrangement, are more prevalent in participants who report workaholism than peers (Robinson, Flowers, & Carroll, 2001).

Workplace culture, climate, and practices

The culture, climate, and practices of workplaces may also influence the likelihood of workaholism. For instance, in some organizations, peers are competitive with one another, and employees tend to prioritize work over family commitments. In these workplaces, workaholism may be especially rife (Liang & Chu, 2009).

Fry and Cohen (2009) present a comprehensive account of the workplace practices and policies that encourage extended hours as well as incite workaholism. They also argue that spiritual leadership might curb some of these problems.

Specifically, according to Fry and Cohen (2009), many scholars ascribe the increasing work hours in modern society to globalization and technology, in which work can persist beyond usual daylight hours. Furthermore, consumerism and hence the need to elevate income might also explain this trend. In contrast, Fry and Cohen (2009) argue that workplaces introduce practices and policies that attract and retain individuals who exhibit workaholic tendencies, instilling a set of values and norms they call an extended work hours culture.

They refer to the study conducted by Tapia (2004) to illustrate their arguments. Tapia (2004) described some IT companies during the dotcom bubble. These companies attempted to instill a culture that encourages extended work hours. To encourage this behavior, managers conveyed a sense of unrelenting crises and impending deadlines with elevated demands. Over time, employees would then encourage each other to work longer hours--extended hours were almost perceived as honorable. Employees with few interests or responsibilities outside the workplace were recruited and rewarded.

Fry and Cohen (2009) maintained the concept of spiritual leadership (Fry, 2003), in which the fundamental needs and values of individuals are fulfilled and integrated with team and workplace objectives, could curb these problems. In practice, a vision that instills a sense of meaning, purpose, or calling in life should be developed. Next, a culture should be established in which leaders and followers show appreciation, care, and concern for themselves and one another, all intended to resonate with the inner voice or spiritual values of individuals.

As a consequence, work will align to the needs and interests of employees, eliciting enthusiastic rather than unenthusiastic workaholism, which is assumed to enhance wellbeing and performance. That is, employees will be energized by their work.

Personal traits

Some personal traits may be associated with workaholism. Liang and Chu (2009), for example, argued that workaholism may be associated with perfectionism and obsessive compulsion as well as achievement orientation and conscientiousness. Similarly, Ng, Sorensen, and Feldman (2007) maintain that workaholism seems to be related to a profound urge to achieve.

Some evidence of this position has been accumulated. Ersoy-Kart (2005), for example, showed that a Type A personality, which entails ambition coupled with hostility and impatience, is associated with workaholism.

Incremental effects of workaholism

The detrimental implications of workaholism cannot be ascribed merely to job demands. As Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, and Prins (2009b) showed, for example, workaholism is positively related to role conflict and burnout, as well as negatively related to various indices of wellbeing and satisfaction, even after job demands are controlled. In this study, medical residents completed a series of scales. First, they completed a workaholism battery, assessing the degree to which individuals work excessively and obsessively. In addition, they completed questions that assess three forms of demand at work: mental demands, such as "Does your work demand a lot of concentration?", organizational demands, such as "Do you have a lot of meetings?", and emotional demands, represented by items like "Does your work put you in emotionally upsetting situations?"

Furthermore, participants completed questions that assess conflict between their life at and outside work, such as "How often does it happen that you find it difficult to fulfil your domestic obligations because you are constantly thinking about your work?" They also completed questions that assess conflict within the role--between their demands as a doctor and their demands as a trainee, such as "How often does it happen that because of your training, it is difficult to fulfil the requirements as a doctor?" Finally, they completed a series of questions that examine burnout, including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, as well as impaired accomplishment, and wellbeing, which comprised measures of subjective happiness, perceived health, and job satisfaction.

Structural equation modeling showed workaholism and job demands were independently associated with role conflict, which in turn was positively related to burnout and negatively related to wellbeing. The measurement and structural model were examined separately, on two distinct subsamples.

To explain these findings, individuals can only dedicate a limited supply of time and energy to the various roles in their life, consistent with the role scarcity hypothesis (Edwards & Rothbard, 2000) and human capital theory (Becker, 1991, 1993). Workaholic individuals do not utilize potential efficiencies and thus cannot readily reconcile conflicting roles. Junior doctors, for example, cannot accommodate the need to both learn from their work, which demands considerable time, and deliver work promptly.

A similar pattern of observations was uncovered by Kanai and Wakabayashi (2001). These authors, in a sample of Japanese automotive workers, demonstrated that one facet of workaholism, a compulsion to work, was related to role conflict after controlling workload. This relationship also persisted after controlling role ambiguity.

Mechanisms that underpin the manifestations of workaholism


Individuals who report workaholism do not utilize provisions to facilitate their work. They do not, for example, delegate their work enough to other individuals (e.g., Kanai & Wakabayashi, 2001). This reluctance to delegate work might reflect a broader need to maintain control, reflected in their orderly and rigid behavior (Mudrack & Naughton, 2001). Similarly, they demonstrate perfectionism--a need to fulfill undue standards (Killinger, 2006& Porter 2001). In short, these individuals may experience a powerful aversion to errors or shortfalls, which elicits a need to maintain control and order.

As a consequence of these rigidity, these individuals work inefficiently. They cannot reconcile the complex and conflicting demands at work (Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, & Prins, 2009b).


Workaholism might represent a need in individuals to override negative attitudes towards themselves. For example, workaholism is positively related the imposter phenomenon (Ross & Krukowski, 2003)--the tendency of some individuals to feel like a fake or fraud when they achieve some success. In one study, conducted by Ross and Krukowski (2003), participants completed the Harvey imposter phenomenon scale, which comprises 14 questions like "Sometimes I'm afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack". In addition, participants completed the schedule for nonadaptive and adaptive personality, which measures traits like workaholism, entitlement, dependency, and detachment.

The imposter phenomenon was positively associated with workaholism. These findings indicate that workaholism might sometimes reflect a need to overcome feelings of inadequacy.

Similarly, workaholism is also inversely related to self acceptance (Chamberlin, & Zhang, 2009). That is, when individuals report symptoms of workaholism, they are also more likely to endorse items like "I feel inferior as a person to some of my friends".

Conceivably, this feeling of inadequacy might have evolved during childhood. Parents might have imposed unrealistic standards (Robinson, 1998). To fulfill these standards, the children might have developed an undue ambition to achieve. Consistent with this possibility, individuals who perceived their parents to be workaholics are more likely to demonstrate this tendency themselves (Chamberlin & Zhang, 2009). The behavior of parents might have generated these implausible standards.


Definition of workaholism

Although the concept of workaholism was coined by Oates (1971), the definition of this term still generates controversy (McMillan & O'Driscoll, 2006& Scott, Moore, & Miceli, 1997). According to Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, and Prins (2009a), workaholism comprises two key interrelated features: the inclination to work excessively but in a compulsive manner. Only when both the excessive work and compulsive nature are demonstrated will wellbeing and behavior be compromised.

Excessive time and energy devoted to work alone can provoke various problems, because other key facets of life may be disregarded (e.g., Buelens & Poelmans, 2004). That is, according to Brett and Stroh (2003), Americans who showed the hallmarks of workaholism work on average between 50 and 60 hours a week.

Nevertheless, according to Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, and Prins (2009a), excessive time and energy at work does not always constitute workaholism: Extensive hours of work could be ascribed to financial problems, social pressure, family dysfunction, or other causes that do not reflect an addictive or compulsive motivation. Lay definitions of workaholism also comprise these two features--work hours and an obsessive style (McMillan & O'Driscoll, 2006).

Positive forms of workaholism

One of the enduring debates in this field is whether workaholism can ever be desirable. That is, some authors maintain that many of the manifestations of workaholism can elicit positive outcomes. In particular, some individuals might exhibit variants of workaholism that are adaptive. In contrast, other scholars contend that such positive variants actually reflect different inclinations altogether, only superficially mirroring workaholism.

To illustrate, Machlowitz (1980) maintains that some workaholics are able to satisfy their lofty goals. Machlowitz (1980), therefore, distinguished between fulfilled and unfulfilled workaholics. Similarly, Buelens and Poelmans (2004) describes some individuals who manifest the features of workaholism as fulfilled and dedicated workers (see also Scott, Moore, & Miceli, 1997).

This controversy primary revolves around which manifestations should be labeled as instances of workaholism. To illustrate, Spence and Robbins (1992) maintained that individuals who feel very involved in their work, but derive pleasure from this activity, should be labeled as "work enthusiasts", which they conceptualize as a more adaptive form of workaholism. Mudrack (2006), in contrast, maintains that dedicated individuals who enjoy their work should not be described as workaholics. Similarly, Schaufeli, Taris, and Bakker (2006) contend that such individuals should be called engaged instead.

Measures and dimensions of workaholism

Workaholism battery

Spence and Robbins (1992) assess three factors to gauge whether individuals experience workaholism. The first factor is work involvement, reflecting the extent to which individuals dedicate themselves to work in lieu of other responsibilities. The second factor is drive, which relates to the energy that individuals feel they must direct to their work. The third factor is enjoyment, corresponding to positive feelings they experience at work.

According to Spence and Robbins (1992), traditional or unenthusiastic workaholics are individuals who report elevated levels of involvement and drive but minimal enjoyment. In contrast, work enthusiasts, report elevated levels of involvement and enjoyment but modest levels of drive.

To measure these three factors, Spence and Robbins (1992) constructed a measure called the Workaholism Battery or Workaholic Triad. The work involvement scale comprises eight items, such as ""I get bored and restless on vacations when I haven't anything productive to do", and represents the degree to which individuals feel especially committed to work rather than other spheres of life. The drive scale comprises seven items, including ""I feel obligated to work hard, even when it's not enjoyable", which represent the degree to which individuals feel driven, motivated, obligated, or compelled to work. The work enjoyment scale includes 10 items, such as "I lose track of time when I am engaged on a project", representing pleasure and flow at work. Alpha reliabilities range from .67 to .86 (Spence & Robbins, 1992).

The work addiction risk test was designed to screen for workaholism (Robinson, 1999& Robinson & Phillips, 1995). The scale comprises 25 items, including "I overly commit myself by biting off more than I can chew". Alpha reliability approximates .88 (e.g., Robinson, 1999). Flowers and Robinson (2002), however, subjected this scale to a factor analysis and derived five factors, which they later reduced to three factors, representing compulsive tendencies, control, and impaired communication or self-absorption.

Two factor scales

Other scholars tend to differentiate two factors: working excessively and working compulsively. In a variant that was utilized by Schaufeli, Bakker, van der Heijden, and Prins (2009b), five items measure working excessively, such as "I seem to be in a hurry and racing against the clock". Five items assess working compulsively, including "I feel that there's something inside me that drives me to work hard". A confirmatory factor-analysis substantiated this model: GFI=.97& AGFI=.95& RMSEA=.07, NFI = 92& NNFI=.91, CFI=.93). The correlation between the latent factors approximated .55.


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