Plama Hristova, PhD, is an organizational psychologist, a clinical psychologist, and a psychotherapist. She is a Chief Assistant Professor in organizational psychology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Dr. Hristova also has a private practice as a psychotherapist and consultant. She combines expert knowledge and skills from organizational psychology and psychotherapy to help people be healthy and satisfied at work and develop their potential.
Workaholism is still considered as both positive and negative thing across organizations. Who would stand the temptation of hiring a hard worker? Research demonstrates workaholics spend too much time working, they feel an inner strong drive to work, and enjoy work at the expense of their personal life. It seems an organization can only benefit from such an employee, or, better, from a workaholic leader.
The workaholic’s checklist
The term ‘workaholic’ was coined at the beginning of the 70s by Wayne E. Oates in his book Confessions of a Workaholic: The workaholic is “a person whose need to work has become so excessive that it creates noticeable disturbances in his health, happiness or relationships”. The word ‘workaholic’ was a somewhat humorous reference to the word ‘alcoholic’. And it finds evidence in one of the major components of workaholism, the compulsive drive to work. This compulsive drive is very typical for addictions. The Workaholics Anonymous World Service Organization helping individuals to stop working compulsively strengthens the analogy to alcoholism and leads to the notion that workaholism is an addiction, not a great characteristic at work.
At work, workaholics:
- Work hard,
- work overtime (50-60 hours per week or more),
- take their work home,
- work at the weekends,
- are perfectionists,
- refuse to delegate thus creating difficulties for themselves and their colleagues,
- are not able to maintain good relationships at work,
- lack flexibility,
- show less innovative thinking,
- suffer distress,
- suffer burnout more than their non-workaholic colleagues,
- report higher levels of psychosomatic and mental health complaints.
Therefore, workaholics tend to work hard but not quite smart. In addition, workaholics tend to think about work and talk about work even when they are on holiday or in social situations that do not suppose such topics. They cannot have a rest. They simply cannot find anything interesting outside work. No surprise that they report low life satisfaction.
Do organizations nurture workaholic cultures?
Most organizations demand workaholics. Often, job applicants are asked about their opinion on working late, taking unfinished work home, working during the weekends or on big holidays, etc. Moreover, some applicants are asked whether they have children (meaning this individual will not be 100% devoted to work) or whether they plan to give birth in the near future (what a sin). In some organizations, employees are promoted if they show a higher commitment to work than to their families. These organizations nurture workaholic cultures.
As leaders influence organizational culture and vice versa, workaholic leaders create workaholic cultures of long working hours, hard work, exhaustion, perfectionism, low levels of innovative thinking, dissatisfied and ill employees. Sadly, there is no empirical evidence that workaholism leads to higher organizational performance. Just the opposite, workaholics do not delegate tasks, making them unnecessarily complicated which, in turn, leads to failure of the teams to observe deadlines, to communicate adequately and to work together effectively, writes the organizational psychologist Toon Taris. All these spoil the relationships in the teams. Moreover, this frenetic working for the sake of working exhausts people. Physically and emotionally drained people are not innovative, they simply do things routinely, like hamsters in wheels. So, do stand the temptation of hiring a workaholic as a most desired employee.
Don’t lead as a workaholic
The role of the leaders in preventing workaholism and coping with it is crucial. Practice what you preach is the best strategy for dealing with workaholism. Leaders can be an example of work engagement combined with rest and pleasant activities outside the office. It means the leaders have to send, by their example, the message of work-life balance in the following ways:
- Encourage the employees to work smart, not hard;
- Discourage long hours in the office
- Do not answer emails an employee sent late in the evening, obviously from home
- State clearly perfectionism is not valued
- Train managers and supervisors to be role models for healthy working
- Train employees to identify and cope with compulsive working
- Introduce office practices for rest and relaxation
- Encourage workaholics to seek for professional help or join self-help groups
Be careful with hiring workaholics
There is plenty of psychological tests measuring workaholism which can be administered to job applicants. There are also personality tests (like the Big Five personality test) measuring personality traits. There is research proving that certain personality traits are predictors of compulsive working. For example, people who feel an inner drive (compulsion) to work, have higher scores on Neuroticism and Conscientiousness, lower scores on Openness to new experience (dimensions of the Big Five model), and low scores on self-efficacy, scientific literature suggests. These scores draw the portrait of a workaholic which is not very attractive: High levels on the Neuroticism dimension describe people who experience chronic negative affect. They repeatedly feel nervous tension, frustration, depression, and guilt that are often related to irrational thinking, low control over impulses and desires, low self-esteem and ineffective coping with stressful situations. High levels of Conscientiousness are characterized by zeal, orderliness, diligence, perseverance and achievement orientation. People scoring low on Openness to new experience defend traditions and conventions, worry about changes and are mistrustful to everything that is different, suggests a study by the psychologists Rober McCrae. It is just the opposite of creativity. Lower scores on generalized self-efficacy indicate persons who have a lower commitment to work and less satisfaction from work, research shows.
Ok, but you already have one on the team?!
Understanding the negative effects of workaholism for the organization is a good start. Identifying workaholic employees you have already hired is the next step. Too conscientious employees who cannot do anything else but work require the leader’s attention. First, because of the unfavorable organizational consequences, and second (but not least), because of a purely humane perspective. In this case, individual-level measures against workaholism are most important but the leaders can do a lot by stimulating the workaholic employee to seek help:
- Speak openly to the workaholic employee about the problem (it is not a personal matter because both the employee and the organization own the problem)
- Identify the detrimental patterns of compulsive working
- Discuss the employee’s attitude to work in general. For example, what proverbs and sayings illustrate best, according to your employee, how people should work.
- Compare the above attitudes to the organization values and find the differences (hopefully, there will be differences, unless your organization fosters workaholic culture)
- Work with HR specialists or external consultants if you find out there is a workaholic culture in your organization
- Discuss with the workaholic employee what the meaning, importance, and aim of their work in the organization is
- Being aware of their compulsive working, persuade them to stick to organizational standards, not to their own ones (which are irrationally higher)
- Regardless of the above suggestions, encourage workaholic to seek professional help or join self-help groups. Although there are no such groups in every country, there are psychotherapists that can help workaholics at an individual level.
- Ask yourself what did you do to foster such compulsive working and be honest in your reply.
These are some basic steps to a healthy workplace. They would lay the foundations of a culture nurturing good health and well-being, smart work and job satisfaction. People in an organization who balance successfully between work and personal life have more potential for creativity and higher performance. Change takes time but it is worth the effort.