We are presiding over seismic change: How should organisations respond? Work Addiction (Part 4)

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Wellbeing, Work-Life Balance

The implications of workaholism for both employees and employers are serious.

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).

Further, 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).

So how should organisations respond?

Findings suggest that employers can help prevent workaholism “by promoting an organizational culture with a balance between professional and private life via an active policy, staging clear organizational segmentations and norms, by changing organizational expectations related to workload, by providing sufficient job resources, by using the managers as role models and by implementing a reward system that does not encourage workaholic behavior” (Cossin et al, p9, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021).

However, as this statement was based on studies published before the start of the global pandemic, one must wonder about its generalizability to today’s organisations, given the forever altered nature, place and context of work, and lower visibility of employee and leader behaviours in the era of hybrid working.

Given the likelihood of heightened workaholism and other mental health risks associated with working remotely for at least some employees, the employers who have working from home and hybrid work policies that:

  1. consider how to support work-home boundary management,
  2. optimise role clarity,
  3. manage workload and prioritising,
  4. agree performance indicators,
  5. ensure access to efficient and effective technical support,
  6. facilitate coworker networking and
  7. provide training for managers on how to adapt their leadership approach to the digital era

are more likely to be effective in preventing and responding to the risks outlined (Oakman et al, 2020).


What constitutes a “reasonable” work pattern?


How much people are working, where they’re working and what constitutes ‘reasonable’ on both counts, dominates the conversations of leaders, P&C decision makers and employees at every level.

Such discussions are tending to take place with increasing frequency and intensity as a reaction to recent changes in employers’ responsibilities for identifying and assessing psychosocial risks and hazards in the workplace. While complying with the new codes of practice and WHS legislation is obviously essential, understanding the regulatory piece is seldom where the biggest struggle lies. Often talking at cross-purposes with little in the way of ‘apples to apples’ comparisons, we see the real confusion as centring around four key questions:

  1. Is working hard/long good or bad for health and wellbeing outcomes, and what constitutes ‘hard’ and ‘long’?
  2. If/when working ‘hard/long’ is bad for us, who or what is at fault?
  3. In the context of working from home and hybrid work patterns, how do we really know who is working hard or long?
  4. Is working from home associated with positive or negative outcomes for individuals? For employers? What outcomes exactly?

Even though much of the coverage is lacking rigour, I am just loving that these spicy issues are at last out in the corporate spotlight and finally getting a decent airing.

The amount of time we humans spend working (on and off the clock), our whereabouts whilst we are doing it, and what it’s doing to/for us as individuals and to/for the organisations who are employing us – these are the provocatively uncomfortable questions triggering the emotions which have been running high over recent months.


So called ‘Theory X’ bosses and companies are the ones panicking about an erosion of visible control and supervision in the hybrid context, factors they believe to be essential for productivity, growth and development.

In contrast, “Theory Y” leaders and companies operate on the basis that employees are essentially self-directed and self-motivated, and therefore allow employees the autonomy, discretion and agency over how and when work gets done and scheduled. The fundamental difference is that they believe responsibility and freedom optimises productivity and decision-making and that the benefits of less visible control and supervision for the majority outweigh the risks of a minority not working as hard or for as many hours as they should.  Although the differences between (and even within) stakeholder groups sometimes look insurmountable, it’s clear we are presiding over seismic change in societal values, business norms and employment practices.

Sometimes working hard and long is good for us. In fact, it can be an absolute tonic – the dignity of a hard day’s decent work and all that. But sometimes it’s not, it harmful. And occasionally it comes with tragedy, including loss of life and terrible errors of judgement which are ruinous to individuals and organisations. What are we measuring here anyway? On the clock and off the clock? Productive and unproductive? Thinking and doing?

As to who or what is at fault for excessive and damaging work patterns – surely, it can’t be our own fault, can it? Moi? Never!

Evil boss? Nasty, unsupportive mean colleagues? Our mums, naturally. Sibling rivalry? Exploitative company culture? The greedy banks? Loss of civilized social norms? Rise of the “I” over the “us”? Messieurs Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk don’t get off Scot free either.

It’s all of the above.

For years, the focus on burnout rang hollow to me because of the reluctance of the ‘protectors of profit’ within organisations to permit or engage in honest discussions around how the volume, pace, intensity and duration of work are causally related to physical, emotional and professional exhaustion, that is – to burnout.

Sometimes the reluctance was perceived or ‘felt’ rather than made explicit. Sometimes it manifested as a symptom of low psychological safety among employees who feared repercussions from ‘complaining’ about workload and time expectations. And sometimes the reticence was nothing short of a corporate gag order – “do not talk about how the organisation might be complicit in burnout, keep it focussed on individual strategies”.

In the first year after the pandemic, I lost a major contract because I insisted on sticking to the science when advising an organisation’s senior management about their responsibilities as employers in the burnout equation and refused to endorse a biased storyline of self-care and stress management. So now, a few years down the track, I’m thrilled and relieved the whole glorious complexity is being outed for proper discussion.

Beyond concerns about the negative effects on individuals, excessively long or hard work is associated with such a range of adverse outcomes for organisations that if widely known and proven valid in the context of today’s radically different employment and societal norms, it would surely dispel the myth that workaholism is somehow of benefit to employers. Don’t you think the nature and prevalence of workaholism and its implications for employees and employers should join the mainstream on discussions and strategies to reduce burnout and improve workplace wellbeing? It’s simply an incomplete picture without.

If you would like to understand the nature and prevalence of workaholism as a predictor of burnout risk in your organisation, and how working from home and hybrid work patterns may be positively or adversely affecting those and what interventions you can design to address concerns, please private message me for a confidential discussion.


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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