Howdo you spot a workaholic and what harm can they do to your company? Thiseight-point guide to the degrees of work obsession will help you to identifythem. Marc Buelens reportsThere is nothing wrong with loving your job or going that extra step to completea project, but when going that extra step gets out of control, to the exclusionof everything else in your life, you could be suffering from ‘workaholism’. WE Oates coined the term ‘workaholism’ in his 1971 book Confessions of aWorkaholic, when he defined it as an “addiction to work, the compulsion orthe uncontrollable need to work incessantly”. The competitive working environment that so many of us experience on aday-to-day basis and the pressure to achieve a solid work-life balance meansthat the phenomenon of workaholism is even more applicable in today’s societythan it was to Oates’ in the 1970s. Add to this a business culture that rewards hard work and long hours withhealthy pay cheques, bonuses and promotions, as well as huge technologicaladvances that allow us to work anywhere around the clock. What exactly is a workaholic? Workaholics place their work firmly in the centre of their lives andprogressively all other aspects of their life, such as family, sport and otherinterests, are no longer the focus of attention. Workaholics feel the urge tocreate and respond to self-imposed demands that can, in many cases, be tracedback to strong family expectations. Many workaholics tell themselves that theirwork is really their hobby, but often working hard is a duty, an externalobligation that has to be done, and not a source of enjoyment orself-development. I work hard: does that make me a workaholic? It’s important to remember that working hard is very different tooverworking, which itself is very different to workaholism. Hard workers dowhat is necessary to complete a task and, once completed, are able to relax andtake time off. They work long hours on a short-term basis with clearly definedgoals. When an individual overworks, it is usually a result of having to workperhaps two jobs or overtime, in order to make ends meet. This is in contrastto having a compulsion to work, which means that overworkers are normally gladonce they can work less. In contrast, workaholics consistently work long hours,stay late and go into the office on weekends and holidays, even if they do nothave any pressing deadlines. Varying degrees of workaholism There is no clear cut line between being a workaholic and not. Research bythe People and Organisation Competence Centre at Vlerick Leuven Gent ManagementSchool, in Belgium, and Steve Poelmans from IESE in Barcelona, has identified aspectrum of eight attitudes to work (listed below left) that range from‘enthusiastic work addicts’ to ‘unengaged workers’. Enthusiastic addicts work the longest hours and report less private time outof all the groups identified. This group is significantly male and often withinhigh hierarchical positions. Intrinsically motivated by loyalty,self-development and responsibility, they are satisfied with their salary anddo not intend to leave their company. However, this group reports manywork/family conflicts. Work addicts also report long working hours, few sleeping hours and a smallnumber of hours dedicated to non-work activities. Their hierarchical positionwithin their organisation is relatively low, but it is a group where femalesare strongly represented. This group perceives a low growth, but high-pressureculture within their organisation which leads them to report many conflicts atwork, as well as many work/family conflicts. They are dissatisfied with all aspects of their current situation – theirsalary,family situation, relationships at work generally and with their linemanagers, for example. This group is not strongly motivated and is highlyfrustrated, reporting a high number of health/stress complaints. Work enthusiasts are happy workers in every aspect. This is a dominantlymale, high-level group that works very long hours, reporting few sleeping hoursand not much private time, but is a group that is satisfied with all aspects oftheir current job and have no intention to leave. Reluctant hard workers operate at a relatively low hierarchical level andreport relatively long working hours. They have a strong perception of pressurewithin their organisation and have every intention to leave. They aredissatisfied with their salary, their manager and, to a lesser extent, theircolleagues. The average professional worker is internally driven and is more or lesscontented with their current position. Disengaged workers report the lowest number of working hours and a greatdeal of private time. They experience low levels of satisfaction and motivationwith all aspects of their current job and have every intention of resigning inthe near future. Relaxed workers are the most balanced of all types. They report the highestnumber of hours dedicated to non-work activities and highest level ofsatisfaction with their work/family balance. This is the youngest group andrepresents a rather low hierarchical level within the organisation. Unengaged workers have put all their efforts into their familyrelationships. They have no perception of pressure, no health or stresscomplaints, and although they are not motivated in their job, they still haveno intention of leaving their current organisation. How to handle workaholics in the workplace As a manager, it sounds tempting to capitalise on workaholic behaviour fromemployees – just think of the increased productivity and mounting profits. Butconsider the potential impact on the organisation and the workaholic’s team andcolleagues. Managers have often reported that workaholics are often quite unproductiveworkers, completing unnecessary tasks, needlessly checking and rechecking workand failing to delegate the simplest task. The stress and low morale ofworkaholics and their inability to collaborate effectively with their team,challenges the group dynamic and creates a negative atmosphere in theworkplace. In fact, there are solid reasons why an organisation should instead promotea work-life balance among its employees – not least to counterbalance any signsof workaholism among the workforce. Kevin Friery, director of counselling atRight Corecare, an employee wellbeing consultancy (part of Right ManagementConsultants), identifies some of the benefits of improved work-life balance forthe organisation: – Improved morale among employees – Higher retention of valuable skilled employees – Reduction of absenteeism – Greater continuity of employees – Improved productivity – A competitive edge as an ’employer of choice’ – Long-term cost saving, for example, through reduced sickness absence Deep personal reasons to work Sue Binks, partner at MaST International, a training and developmentconsultancy, argues that employers have a responsibility to encourage work-lifebalance among employees. “Everyone has different motivations to work. Forthe workaholic, there may be some very deep, personal reasons why they do whatthey do. “In some ways, the organisation does not have the right to interferewith an individual’s motivation to work. However, where the organisation doeshave a right, indeed a responsibility, is in the area of health and safety atwork. If an individual is beginning to show serious signs of stress, then theorganisation has a duty of care towards that individual. This is becoming moreand more of an issue, especially as the expectations and targets set for peopleare more and more challenging,” she says. In addition to the mental pressures that the workaholic experiences, theyare also prone to physical symptoms. Continued overwork creates surges ofadrenaline within the body, putting particular pressure on the heart andcontributing to conditions such as high blood pressure, the risk of heartattacks, strokes, anxiety attacks and ulcers. Friery adds: “In Japan, and increasingly worldwide, there is adiagnosis of Karoshi (death through overwork), which has been recognised sincethe 1990s. In fact, there were cases reported in Europe in the 1880s, whennormal working routine for some people exceeded 16 hours a day. “Heart disease, cerebral haemorrhage and strokes are among the reportedsymptoms, as well as psychological disturbances ranging from depression topsychosis. An employer would not allow an alcoholic to exercise his or heraddiction at work – the same should hold true of workaholism,” he says. “It is important to understand that a workaholic is not a ‘willingworker’, but is an addict who is in need of help and treatment,” he adds. Professor Marc Buelens, is a partner at People and OrganisationCompetence Centre, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School Worker types: it’s all about attitudes Workinvolvement ‘Drive’ for the job Work enjoymentEnthusiastic work addicts High High High Work addicts High High LowWork enthusiasts High Low High Reluctant hard workers High Low Low‘Average’ professionals Low High High Disenchanted workers Low High LowRelaxed workers Low Low High Unengaged workers Low Low LowCase studiesBeware the burnout trapJames HuntPrior to joining one of the top three management consultingpractices, James Hunt had been head of IT for a major UK company. He made theswitch to consulting with high expectations of learning about leading edgetechnologies and developing a professional approach to project work.”At the interview and on the induction course, the companystressed what they called ‘work-lifestyle balance’, which was a ‘5-4-3’approach of five days work, four days with the client and three days maximumaway from home. On my first project, it was clear the rhetoric didn’t match thereality and clients expected me to be available every hour of the day. Anunforgettable quote from one client was: ‘You’re on football players’ rates, weexpect blood’.”Another example was during a large software project. Theclient was unhappy about what was being delivered, so the team of 20 people –all of whom had been working away from home for a couple of months – had theirweekends cancelled until the problem was solved. There was no debate in the matter. It was in the interest ofthe project leader to ‘drive the guts out’ of us. I was putting in 60-70-hourweeks, but was told it wasn’t in my interest to declare my full number ofhours, because it would blow the project budget.”The work pressure and the long hours meant that thequality of my work inevitably suffered, as well as having repercussions on mypersonal life. I found it impossible to rest and was not happy at home. Ieventually went for counselling, and during the first session, the counselloragreed this was not the career for me.”I’ve now moved into a teaching role with a majoraccountancy tutor organisation. Although I’m on roughly half my previoussalary, the positive work environment, the opportunities for personal and teamdevelopment and the additional time I’m able to spend with my family means thatI truly do have a work-life balance.”Pam calvertPam Calvert, managing director of Communications Management, areputation management consultancy, is a self-confessed reformed workaholic.”When I set up my business 15 years ago, I worked 16-hour days, seven daysa week. I have always found my work interesting and engaging, so I wasn’tunhappy with the work-life balance I was striking, but I did recognise thatwithout redressing the balance, I would soon reach burnout. I also think theresponsibility of running my own business was a significant factor thatcompelled me to work so hard. I felt that I needed to be available all of thetime, but by building a strong management team and growing the businessinfrastructure, I gave myself the confidence to take my mind completely offwork.” What HR should doDiscouraging a workaholic culture The research from Vlerick Leuven GentManagement School and IESE confirms that there is no one definitive definitionof workaholism, so HR managers must be proactive in identifying the onset ofworkaholism within their organisation in order to encourage a healthy workstyle among employees.Some tips for doing this include:– Encourage managers within the organisation to have fair andrealistic work expectations– Monitor employee workloads, setting reasonable time scalesfor projects and tasks and giving adequate time to non-work commitments– Encourage employees to schedule extra time for projects,allowing for the unexpected– Discourage employees from taking work home– Avoid automatically rewarding employees who work longer hours– Insist that employees take breaks – whether for coffee, lunchor their annual holiday– Be aware of subconscious messages managers might be giving toemployees who do leave work on time– Discourage a culture of calling employees at home after theirscheduled work hours– Encourage workers to exercise to ease stress– Encourage employees to interact off the job, for example, byorganising occasional group outings– Make overtime the exception, not the rulewww.vlerick.be Addicted to work?On 22 Oct 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. 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