Does working from home alter the risk of work addiction? Work Addiction (Part 3)
Before I can sensibly address the risks for work addicts specifically, there’s a bigger picture of challenges and benefits linked to working from home that demands attention.
And Boom! There we have it – a segue to one of the biggest questions of our time:
“Is working from home good or bad for us?”
Employee demand for working from home remains both steadfastly high and linked to higher rates of employee job satisfaction and engagement. Or as CBA and others are famously experiencing, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the absence of a guaranteed option to work from home causes marked job dissatisfaction and a reason for employees to look elsewhere.
While working from home may not be an inalienable legal right, it would go straight to number one on any ‘Herzberg hygiene factors of all time’ list.
Roughly two-thirds of organisations intend to continue some form of hybrid work arrangements, but as the 24/7 digitally enabled rewriting of work patterns continues, working from home is also being accompanied by a steady increase in the average hours worked each week (Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research, June 2021).
The insatiable employee demand for working from home is largely predicated on their belief that working from home will deliver increased flexibility, improved wellbeing and more quality time with family and friends – and while this seems true for a proportion of the workforce – emerging research suggests the reality is very different for many employees (Morkevičiūtė & Endriulaitienė, 2021; Spagnoli, 2020a/b).
Although highly coveted and a key factor in determining talent attraction and retention, flexibility of work location has been paradoxically associated for many years with a significant increase in the number of hours worked, greater intrusion into personal life and an exacerbation of work-home conflicts (Dockery & Bawa, 2014).
More recent reviews of published studies indicate employees who perform high levels of remote work are more prone to certain negative factors in their work environment (e.g., social and professional isolation, and perceived threat to career/ professional advancement) and, these factors play a pivotal role in their overall mental health, job satisfaction, and social wellbeing (Charalampous et al., 2019; Oakman et al., 2020).
There can be no doubt that working from home facilitates a damaging interaction between some internal individual personality traits and certain external role/organisational factors, and that this facilitation is accelerating and/or intensifying a range of negative emotional, social and behavioural health outcomes. But we’ve also got to remember that not all employees have or experience the individual biopsychosocial factors which are associated with the increased risk of harmful outcomes, and not all roles, workplace cultures or organisational practices contain the external factors associated with lower wellbeing.
Hence, we are left with a mishmash of popular but contradictory and sometimes ill-informed views about working from home!
Is working from home a good or bad thing for ‘work-addicts’? Navigating the hybrid minefield.
As to the question of how working from home specifically alters the risk of workaholism, the truthful but somewhat frustrating answer is that the significance of working from home as a conduit or amplifier for the individual traits associated with workaholism is not yet well understood (Morkevičiūtė, 2021; Spagnoli et al., 2020; Balducci et al 2020; Mazetti et al, 2020). More research is underway to investigate how the absence and/or presence of the various internal and external factors linked to workaholism are impacted within the context of hybrid or remote work arrangements.
Internal factors at play
Initial findings suggest that people who score highly on measures of perfectionism and who work remotely are more prone to workaholism than employees who score low on this factor and who also work remotely; the theory being that highly perfectionistic people cannot stop themselves from deploying their increased flexibility and freedom over when and how to work into unwarranted additional efforts and unnecessary extra hours (Morkevičiūtė, 2021; Spagnoli et al., 2020; Stoeber et al., 2013).
Similarly, employees who are dispositionally inclined to experience high levels of anxiety, stress and worry (individual precursors of workaholism) may be more likely to feel the loss of office-based structure, routine and habits which previously facilitated their stability, containment and psychological ease. This may result in an elevation of their anxiety and stress levels, and trigger excessively hard and/or compulsive work patterns as a maladaptive coping strategy to self-soothe their stress.
External job/system factors at play
Some of the organisational factors in the workaholism equation are thought to behave in ways which run contrary to mainstream HR and WHS advice. For example, ensuring employees have high levels of autonomy is usually regarded by workplace psychologists, leadership experts, policy makers, regulators, employers and employees as a “pro-wellbeing” resource, and autonomy is typically regarded as a strong protective factor against psychological harm.
However, in the context of work-addiction and working from home where both supervision and visibility of work patterns are restricted, very high levels of autonomy may result in more excessive or compulsive working and could be considered as ‘having too much of a good thing’ (Shkoler et al, 2017; Malinowska et al, 2018; Zhou, 2020; Torp et al 2018).
The health/workaholism/work relationship is complex and requires consideration of broader system factors to optimise the effects of working from home on workers’ health and performance.
In short, working from home has potentially huge implications for those at risk of work-addiction.
The next blog is the final instalment in our Work Addiction series: How should organisations respond?
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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