Workaholism and the culture of competition: OSH consequences

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Roxane L. Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK

Introduction

This article defines workaholism and the culture of competition. These concepts are not usually considered from an occupational safety and health (OSH) perspective. With respect to workaholism, most of the information on this topic thus far has either been anecdotal or has used a clinical approach[1]. However, as one of the consequences of these behaviours could be ill health, they should be viewed as a risk within the workplace. The benefits of addressing these behaviours in the work environment by implementing good practice are discussed.

Workaholism and the culture of competition: An introduction

Workaholism, or the other used term of work addiction (i.e., combining ‘work’ with ‘addiction’[2] described as such due to its compulsive tendencies), is one that is seen as difficult to define or categorise. The concept is troublesome as it could be seen as beneficial due to the perception that workaholics are highly productive[3]; while research has presented the challenging aspects of the concepts, such as the obsession with working and working excessive hours to the point of neglecting other parts of one’s life[4].

It is acknowledged that the term workaholism was first used by Oates who described a workaholic as ‘a person whose need for work has become so excessive that it creates noticeable disturbance or interference with his bodily health, personal happiness, and interpersonal relationships, and with his smooth social functioning’(pg. 4) [5]. Since then, the concept has evolved[6] with the more recent definitions promoting the underlying dimensions to the concept. For example, Spence and Robbins’[7] tri-dimensional approach, consists of: ‘work involvement’, ‘feeling driven to work’ and ‘the enjoyment of work’. Spence and Robbins’ concept of workaholism is defined in terms of: high scores on measurements of ‘work involvement’ and ‘feeling driven to work’, and low scores on a measure of ‘the enjoyment of work’. The workaholism profile tends to be contrasted with work enthusiasm, which is defined as high work involvement and enjoyment, paired with low feelings of a drive to work. In contrast, another definition sees workaholism in terms of those individuals ‘who enjoy the act of working, who are obsessed with working, and who devote long hours and personal time to work’[4]. One of the traits of workaholism is working long hours, even when this is not required for the task and job; and hence it is mainly seen as the result of a compulsion by those engaging in such behaviour. This level of compulsion differs from those times when employees may be required to work long hours over the short-term to meet specific demands or deadlines[8].


Workaholism, work engagement and personality traits

Workaholism has been linked to personality traits. One study of 323 working students from a university in the United States of America (USA) assessed the effect of personality traits in relation to workaholism[9]. The results of this study indicated that narcissism had a strong relationship with overall workaholism, as well as two of the sub-scales of workaholism (impatience and compulsion to work). Further, those who were more likely to be conscientious were less likely to be impatient, and those who were more agreeable were less likely to feel a compulsion to work.

These traits could be considered when assessing the relationship of workaholism to work engagement. Work engagement is a term used to describe ‘a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication, and absorption in the activity’[10]. Workers with vigour tend to have high levels of energy and mental resilience when at work, as well as the willingness to invest effort in their work and persist with a task, even when it is proving difficult, whilst dedication at work is related to enthusiasm, inspiration, pride and challenge[10]. One study assessing the differences between those who work ‘hard’ within organisations, classified as either workaholics or engaged workers, showed that both types of workers spend similar time at the workplace, as they both work long hours[11]. As such, these workers are similar in some respects, but the two concepts are distinct from each other due to the different factors that contribute to the observed behaviours. In this respect, workaholics feel compelled to do the work and have to complete a task or job on their own, while engaged workers are more inclined to choose to complete tasks[11][12], and could step away from the work or delegate parts of it, if necessary.

The concept of work engagement could be linked to the wider concept of personality. For example, one study from the USA with 202 participants from various professions found links between workaholism as assessed with three factors used to understand workaholism, namely: work involvement, work drive, and work enjoyment, and personality traits. In this study, individuals who were more conscientious, a personality trait, were more likely to be involved with work; while those who were more conscientious and open to experience, two personality traits, were more likely to have a higher work drive and to enjoy work more[13]. As well, a survey of 496 nursing home employees in Norway showed that more extraverted individuals were more likely to get involved in work, and those individuals who were more neurotic and conscientious were more likely to have a higher work drive. In contrast, those individuals who were more open to experiences, were less likely to feel driven to do work; whilst those extraverted individuals were more likely to enjoy work[14].

With the aim to further refine the conceptual understanding of these concepts, findings from van Beek and colleagues (2011) classified workers as: 1) workaholic employees who respond to controlled motivation; 2) engaged employees who respond to autonomous motivation; 3) engaged workaholics who respond to both controlled and autonomous motivation; and 4) non workaholic/non-engaged employees[11][12]. . These findings suggest that despite the increase in research in this area, the concept of workaholism and its relationship to work engagement is in infancy; as researchers continue to refine the concepts. But overall, research suggests that individuals who are more agreeable, open to experiences and extraverted are more likely to engage with their work and enjoy their work. Conversely, individuals who are more conscientious are more likely to feel that they have to do the work, and may work very long hours to complete the work.


The culture of competition

Organisations could achieve a competitive edge using two diverse methods. For example, some organisations proactively seek a competitive advantage, using various and at times intense practices to sustain this advantage[15]. These types of behaviours are driven generally by the leaders within the organisation. Conversely, a leadership culture that promotes strong values, vision and consistency is more likely to succeed[15] than one that does not. It has been noted that one of the best ways to encourage competitive advantage is to continuously encourage individuals to innovate, and thereby gain new advantages[15]. However, this type of culture, in striving to be competitive, may assist inadvertently in sustaining a culture of workaholism by creating the perception among employees that working long hours and having a heavy workload are acceptable practices in which to engage to attain and sustain this achievement.

Workaholism in organisations and its OSH impact

Individual health impacts of workaholism

While the extent of workaholism in the working population has not been ascertained to date[8], there is increasing awareness of the impact on individuals. For example:

  • it has been found to result in poorer emotional and physical wellbeing[1],
  • it has been linked to sleep problems:
    • subjective sleep insufficiency,
    • excessive daytime sleepiness at work,
    • difficulty awakening in the morning, and
    • feeling tired on awakening in the morning[16];
  • it acts as a contributor to coronary heart disease due to excessive daily overtime hours[17],
  • the long work hours associated with workaholism have been linked also to hypertension[18],
  • it negatively influences work-family balance [19][20],
  • it has been linked to burnout[21] and
  • it negatively impacts on life satisfaction[20].

One of the reasons for the negative impact of the traits of workaholism has been proposed by Meijman and Mulder’s (1998)[22] Effort-Recovery (E-R) model, which highlights that while employees may choose to work hard, this requires an investment of effort that over the short-term involves changes at the physiological and behavioural level and can be seen as a ‘cost’ to the individual. However, when employees stop work, as happens during a break or at the end of the day, then this allows their psychobiological systems to return to normal and stabilise at baseline levels, thereby facilitating recovery. If recovery does not occur, for example if long working hours impact on sleep, then this can cause a decline in health and wellbeing, and requires further compensatory effort and, in turn, the need for additional recovery time[23]. Such behaviours can spiral and the continuous sustained work activity may make it difficult to recover, which in the long-term may lead to poor health and wellbeing[24] and that could ultimately become irreversible[25].

More recent research has suggested separating the different components of workaholism when assessing its impact on health and wellbeing. For example, when the three components of work involvement, drive and work enjoyment were compared against health and wellbeing outcomes, those individuals who enjoyed work more were more likely have higher levels of job and life satisfaction and better health; while those individuals who were more involved with their work and had higher levels of work drive were more likely to be more dissatisfied with their jobs , and to have poorer health. Those individuals with higher levels of work drive were also more likely to have lower levels of life satisfaction[26]. In addition, the components of working excessively, linked to wellbeing (vigour) and working compulsively, linked to poor health, provide support for using such an approach[8].

When it comes to the less negative aspects of workaholics, i.e., being engaged, engaged workaholics tend not to experience the highest levels of burnout, suggesting that high engagement may act as a buffer against the negative consequences that could occur as a result of workaholism[11]. Other factors that have been shown to help control the negative effects of workaholism are personal resources. In this respect, individuals with a heavy workload i.e. high job demands, who are able to generate job resources (such as support from colleagues and managers) are less likely to experience burnout[27].

Despite the evidence that workaholism is likely to cause ill health, the discussion that this is likely to occur continues. For example, one study compared a fairly small sample of 46 workaholics with 42 non-workaholics. In this study[28], the workaholics were identified by scoring on the WorkBAT-R scale; which is a self-report questionnaire of 14 questions with 7 possible responses ranging from 'disagree' to 'agree'. Once completed the scale provides two sub-scales: enjoyment and drive. Both groups were compared twice over a six-month period and small differences were found. The workaholics were more likely to experience slightly poorer health status, role functioning and more frequent pain; however they tended to have similar levels of vitality, general health and psychological health when compared to the non-workaholics[28].


The OSH impact at the organisational level

The majority of studies and overall research on workaholics has focused at the individual level, i.e. on employees. Less attention has been paid to its impact at the organisational level. However, from what is known about the impact on the individual, i.e. poorer emotional and physical health[1][17], it is possible to suggest that workaholics may eventually have to take sickness absence due to ill health or may come to work while being unfit. Besides personal suffering, the negative consequences for organisations in terms of sickness absence costs, reduced productivity and increased turnover are likely to be the outcome of workaholism. However, research is needed in this area to assess the possibility of these occurring. Organisations should consider workaholism as one of the psychosocial risks that could have adverse effects at both the organisational and individual levels. This is especially true as events that occur at either level have been shown to relate to and influence each other[29].

Good practice and prevention

This section discusses the benefits of implementing good practice to reduce the level of workaholism that may exist within organisations.


Risk assessment, prevention, and protection

The risk assessment process

The risk assessment process allows the evaluation of any hazard or risk that may or does occur at the workplace. It is an essential element to evaluate the risks to the safety and health of workers including the psychosocial risks to workers’ health and to take the appropriate action to prevent or control those risks. This risk assessment process is outlined in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC[30]. More information can be found here

Due to the nature of workaholism, it may be challenging to devise a risk assessment that is specific to that construct. However, there are behaviours in which employees may engage that could indicate that they are susceptible to working more hours that may be necessary and thereby develop work practices that may lead to workaholism. The list that follows outlines some of the issues that should be considered as part of the risk assessment process. It is important to note that this list should be used only as guidance.

Signs of workaholism The following questions may indicate an employee is obsessed with work, and while answering ‘yes’ to many of the questions does not indicate that the employee is a workaholic, more ‘yes’ responses may indicate that the employee is at risk.

  • Does the employee get more excited about work than about anything else?
  • Does the employee regularly work through or read work-related materials during meals?
  • Does the employee often work-or call work-during planned time off?
  • Does the employee have difficult delegating work to others?
  • Does the employee work more than 55 hours a week?
  • Does the employee work far beyond what is reasonably expected to meet her/his job requirements?
  • Does the employee find it ‘necessary’ to work late and on the weekend, whether or not it is a busy time?
  • Does the employee appear exhausted or high-strung?
  • Does the employee seem to have a personal life? Does s/he talk about her/his family, friend or weekend activities?
  • Does the employee seem physically right? Does s/he complain of back pain, headaches, ulcers or other health problems?
  • Does the employee regularly take work home?
  • Does the employee underestimate how long a project will take and then rush to complete it?

Source: Workaholics Anonymous as quoted in Tyler, p. 37[31].

Prevention programmes

There are not many prevention programmes for improving on workaholism behaviours in the workplace, but organisations, especially when developing a safety and health culture could ensure that the culture does not support the compulsive work behaviours of individuals by:

  • Discussing and challenging reasons for long hours.
    • Does the worker possibly at risk fear for job security, believe long hours strengthen the chances of promotion, feel that s/he has too much work?
    • Does the worker possibly at risk address arguments by for example highlighting successful work/life role models in senior ranks, explaining business case for work/life balance?
    • For those workers possibly at risk, find out if the problem is one of an unidentified training need. Workers who may not have the required training in place to complete the task may compensate by using more time to ensure the work is done to the required standard.
  • Walking the talk.
    • Ensure managers set a good example e.g. leaving work early one day a week.
    • Reduce the number of early-start meetings for example to allow employees the opportunity to be able to take their children to school.
    • Ensure mangers take all their annual leave and encourage staff to do the same.
  • Introducing flexible working time.
    • The introduction of flexible working can break the notion that long hours equates to greater commitment and/or productivity.
    • Be aware that flexible working will obscure the number of hours that employees work as some come into the office earlier and others later.
  • Finding ways to reduce the workload of staff.
    • Workers possibly at risk typically send too many memos (e-mail messages), set up too many meetings, and try to do every job perfectly.
    • Help work addicts to find ways to cut corners and set goals to review in a specific period, such as in one month’s time.

Source: Adapted from Anonymous, 2002, p. 15[32].

Conclusions

This article presented an overview of the concept of workaholism. It is a construct that continues to raise debates with respect to its structure and its impact on employees. As shown there is very limited publicly available information that explores its impact on the workplace as it relates to OSH. More OSH related research is needed therefore on this topic to ensure the development of an evidence-base, and thereby allowing more structured interventions to be developed for individuals and organisations.

References

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Links to further reading

Newkirk, W. (2012). A prescription for the workaholic workplace. Retrieved 04 December 2012, from: [2]

Workaholics Anonymous World Service Organization, The Twenty Questions: How Do I Know If I’m a Workaholic? 2006. Available at: [3]