Research shows being a ‘workaholic’ not always a good thing

  • A businessman sleeps in a cluttered cubicle at his office. Research shows that being a “workaholic” is not always a good thing. Comstock Images—Getty Images

Published: 2/12/2017 11:51:37 PM

While many employees are praised for being “hard workers,” some can take it too far. Studies show that overworking, or being a so-called “workaholic,” can have negative effects.

Working too much, whether by choice or by demand, can lead to health problems, and has also been tied to psychological issues and mental disorders. But others believe that people who voluntarily work long hours do so because they love their jobs — and that can have a positive effect on their lives.

One study published last May by researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway, Nottingham Trent University and Yale University centered on the relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorder.

“In order to prevent workaholism developing, there is a need to identify factors involved with this compulsive work pattern — especially since modern technology (such as laptops, tablets and smart phones) has blurred the natural lines between home and the workplace,” the study states.

Researchers studied 16,426 working adults using a scale of seven core addiction elements to determine if someone is a workaholic. Each item is scored on a five-point scale, with a 1 meaning “never” and a 5 meaning “always.”

The criteria included:

Salience, or being totally preoccupied by work.

Mood modification, or using work to alleviate emotional stress.

Tolerance, or gradually working longer and longer hours to get the same mood modifying effects.

Withdrawal, or suffering emotional and physical distress if unable to work.

Conflict, or sacrificing other obligations such as relationships and social activities because of work.

Relapse, or suffering some kind of harm or negative consequence as either a direct or indirect result of the excessive working problems.

For the study, high scores on the scale indicates workaholism. Scales were also used to measure ADHD, obsessive-compulsive, anxiety and depression.

The research found that people that met the criteria for workaholics also met criteria for psychological disorders. Among the determined workaholics, 32.7 met ADHD criteria, 25.6 percent for OCD, 33.8 percent anxiety criteria and 8.9 percent met depression criteria.

Engaged workers

However, some people love their work and their passion for their career can be a positive experience.

University of Massachusetts psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne said there are two types of workaholics: involuntary and voluntary.

An involuntary workaholic is someone who overworks because they have to or feel pressured, which can often have negative outcomes, Whitbourne said. She said she does not consider it an addiction to work. A voluntary workaholic is someone who works hard because they enjoy it and get fulfillment by doing so, Whitbourne said.

“People that are driven because they think their work is a calling,” Whitbourne said.

Malissa Clark, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, considers Whitbourne’s definition of a voluntary workaholic as an “engaged worker.”

“Work engagement leads to an enhanced well-being, where as workaholism leads to a decreased well-being,” Clark said.

Clark has researched workaholism and has published a few studies on the subject as well as an analysis reviewing past research on workaholics.

She said the term workaholic was first used in 1971 by Wayne Oates, a self-claimed workaholic, who defined the term as “a person whose need for work has become so excessive that it creates noticeable disturbance or interference with their bodily health, personal happiness, and interpersonal relations, and with their smooth social functioning.”

The analysis states that most scholars conceptualize workaholism as an addiction to work.

Results show that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress and work-life conflict.

Overall Clark’s analysis states the results provide solid evidence that workaholism is best conceptualized as an addiction to work that leads to many negative individual, interpersonal and organizational outcomes.

Whitbourne said it is good to have goals and aspirations, but unrealistic goals can cause some people to strive for perfection in a negative way.

For individuals that feel consumed with work, Clark said disconnecting email from going directly to the phone can help establish boundaries between work and private life.

“Technology has definitely made it worse,” Clark said. “It’s allowing them to be constantly available to their work.”

Just by “switching off” is a step in the right direction, Clark said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at


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