It’s a common misconception that more hours at work equals greater productivity. In truth, workaholics are less productive than non-addicted peers. Learn more.

Workaholism: The Silent Killer

Insightful managers look closely at employee engagement
by Mike Saxton, PhD

“Workaholism” is a word that many people verbalize, but too often use generically to describe an individual who works excessively. While that is certainly a component, there is much more to the term. What is workaholism? Is everyone who works a lot a workaholic? Can it be unhealthy to work a lot?

First, we need to define workaholism. The term was coined by Wayne Oates in his book Confessions of a Workaholic (1973). He describes his personal experience and differentiates it from merely working a great deal. Since then, his writing has been considered a seminal piece in a developing body of research.

While scholars do not agree completely (they rarely do), the definitions offered generally involve an unhealthy addiction to work. Studies that show that workaholism — like addictions to drugs or alcohol — can have similar damaging physiological effects, including withdrawal syndromes, and psychological effects such as irritability and withdrawal from family and social circles. There are even support groups for recovering workaholics, like Workaholics Anonymous.

Simply working a lot does not make one a workaholic, and it is wise to look at the totality of the circumstances. There is another phenomenon called workplace engagement, where people enjoy their work to the extent that it fulfills them in a fashion similar to hobbies and extracurricular activities. To the organizationally engaged individual, spending 10 or 12 hours a day on work is rewarding, not destructive.

Another question is whether working a lot can be healthy. We can consider this from two perspectives: the health of the individual and the health of the work environment.

An organizationally engaged individual can find health benefits in working extended hours. When someone feels fulfilled, endorphins and other chemicals can influence physical and mental health in a positive way. By being efficient and productive during those working hours, the organizationally engaged individual can also accomplish tasks that provide additional satisfaction and intrinsic value.

In contrast, a workaholic may “work” for extended hours, but they are not necessarily productive ones, merely work for the sake of work. Mundane activities, such as indiscriminately scrolling through emails, waste time rather than produce results. The negative effects of work addiction on physical and mental health can also slow productivity, so that it takes eight hours to accomplish what a non-addicted individual can accomplish in four.

This leads us to our second consideration: workplace or organizational health. While most of us would agree that alcoholics or drug addicts negatively impact organizational health, work addiction is so often misunderstood that managers actually regard it as healthy. Far too many employers cling to the outdated belief that hours worked equal productivity. There is a substantial body of convincing research that productivity is not determined solely by hours present at work. Therefore, workaholics can spend hours in the workplace accomplishing less than their non-addicted counterparts.

Managers and other professionals need to be acutely aware of employee productivity levels. Measuring productivity should go beyond simply watching when people punch in and out. What tasks are being accomplished? Are organizational goals being met? Are there any indications that employees are experiencing greater than expected stress? Have family members, friends, or colleagues expressed concerns? Is behavior becoming erratic?

Given the time constraints in our fast-paced business world, the energy and resources for such astute observation require serious institutional commitment. But by focusing on employee health and work habits, organizations can significantly influence productivity and the success of their projects and operations.

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