Can work be as addictive as drugs or alcohol? Work Addiction (Part 1)
“I’m not a workaholic! I just can’t say no, have high standards, am loathed to delegate and can’t trust anyone else to do it. My emails keep coming and I need to stay on top of them. And tbh, I don’t really mind working my evenings or weekends. Not sure what I’d do if it wasn’t for my work”.
It’s true that not everyone who works excessively long hours is (or will become) a work-addict. But since all work-addicts do work excessively long hours, how can you tell what’s a work addiction versus what’s just plain hard work?
But hang on, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps you’re still doubting…
- Is workaholism even a proper ‘thing’?
- Is work really addictive? Like drug dependency or alcohol abuse?
- Are some people more at risk than others?
- Does working from home increase the risk of work addiction?
- And if so … What are the implications of workaholism for employees and employers?
The answers to questions 1-4 are ‘yes’. Workaholism is real, work can be (negatively) addictive and some people are more at risk than others – especially when working from home. So what does this mean for employees and employers?
Let’s cut straight to the chase on addressing the implications of workaholism…
The implications of workaholism for employees and employers
Abstinence remains the most effective treatment strategy for addictions generally, but few people have the luxury of being able to avoid or simply stop work. For most ‘work-addicts’, there is no alternative; they must engage with daily risk, at high levels of exposure. For some, this feels akin to how an alcoholic might feel living next door to a 24/7 bottle shop. Or IN the bottle shop – work is available 24/7 on tap.
Let me introduce you to “Alex”.
Openly rejoicing about being “the total work addict” in their team, his “guaranteed availability all hours of the day and night, even on holiday” and his “usefulness in showing the others what proper hard work looks like”, Alex is a leader I met on a program a few months ago, who was surprised at the pushback he got from his peers, and from me.
So I took him outside and shot him.
No, obviously I didn’t because (1) I’m not that sort of person, (2) I don’t want to go to jail and (3) in fairness, he was simply expressing many of the same positive connotations other bosses/employers have cited since time immemorial – that having excessively hard-working staff is A Very Good Thing.
Much like exercise addiction, work addiction is often endorsed by society as an addiction that’s imbued with positive inference. But this ‘blessing in disguise’ attribution is erroneous, even dangerous. Euphemisms such as hyper-performing, adaptive positive perfectionism, job commitment, work immersion, work absorption, dedication, passion, high-engagement, happy-hard workers, fulfilled, happy/enthusiastic workaholics, being heavily invested, and pro-social organisational citizenship … all imply positive qualities about work addiction which are misleading.
The longer-term negative consequences of workaholism are strongly linked to a multitude of negative psychosocial, health and organisational outcomes (Griffiths et al, 2018; Clark et al, 2017; Cossin et al, 2021):
DETRIMENTAL PSYCHOSOCIAL OUTCOMES include
- ❌ significantly poorer interpersonal relationships at work,
- ❌ lower quality social relationships outside of work,
- ❌ higher levels of work-life conflict,
- ❌ higher levels of marital disaffection, and
- ❌ lower levels of family satisfaction and functioning.
NEGATIVE HEALTH OUTCOMES include
- ❌ poor and worsening physical, emotional and mental health,
- ❌ increased psychological strain, job stress, distress,
- ❌ more depressive feelings, depersonalisation and emotional exhaustion,
- ❌ greater sleeping difficulties,
- ❌ higher risk of cardiovascular disease,
- ❌ elevated systolic blood pressure,
- ❌ worse work-life imbalance, and
- ❌ reduced life and job satisfaction.
The connection between workaholism and rates of clinical depression and burnout among employees provides a clear insight into the significant socioeconomic costs of workaholism for individuals and the organisations with whom they work (Griffiths et al., 2018).
For employers and bosses not yet truly on board with the value proposition around employee happiness and wellbeing, what often helps change their minds is the simple fact that working excessively long hours not only fails to increase employee productivity but is also linked to higher rates of employee burnout and cynicism, increased legal, governance and reputational risks and has an overall detrimental impact on business growth and performance (Clark et al, 2016; Griffiths et al, 2018).
In other words, the implications of workaholism for both employees and employers are serious.
In the next blog instalment: Is workaholism even a proper “thing” and it is addictive?
About the author – and her special interest in workaholism
Audrey McGibbon is a Chartered Occupational & Registered Psychologist with over 30 years public and private sector specialist experience in Australia, UK and across the Asia Pacific. Audrey is the CEO of EEK & SENSE, an independent research, assessment and advisory firm who operate at the intersection of leadership, culture and wellbeing.
In collaboration with the University of Melbourne, the research undertaken by Audrey and her team at EEK & SENSE using their proprietary model and psychometric measure of leader wellbeing – the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) is contributing new and valuable information to both the science and practice of employee wellbeing.
For more than 10 years, Audrey has researched and pioneered groundbreaking advancements in the field of leader wellbeing – proving that such a construct exists as a real entity, that it can be reliably measured and developed, that being in a leadership or highly demanding professional role can be both good and bad for our wellbeing, and that leaders’ wellbeing has a ripple effect on the culture and wellbeing of their people.
Audrey holds a number of industry and professional advisory roles and is an increasingly prominent voice on the global employee wellbeing stage. Audrey is currently completing her professional doctorate (PhD) in Organizational Psychology with Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, where she is researching the relationship between workaholism, hybrid work patterns and specific job-demands/resources.
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