What is really at the root of workaholism?

The Psychology of Workaholism

The definition of workaholism has expanded over the years, but understanding why you’re overworking can help you unlock ways to deal with it.

When I tell people that I study workaholism for a living, I’m usually bombarded by suggestions of subjects I could do a case study on. It seems that everyone can think of at least one person in their lives that they would label a workaholic—or, perhaps, they identify as a workaholic themselves.

The definition of workaholism has expanded over the years to include motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components—but understanding why you’re overworking can help you unlock ways to deal with it.

Motivational:

Workaholics are different from people who are simply highly-engaged in their jobs. They don’t enjoy their work, they feel compelled to work because of internal pressures. In other words, they work because they feel like they should be working or that they ought to be working.

Cognitive:

Workaholics have persistent thoughts about work when they’re not working, and they find it difficult to mentally disengage from work.

Emotional:

Workaholics experience negative emotions like anxiety and guilt when they aren’t working.

Behavioral:

Workaholics tend to work beyond what is reasonably expected of them by their organization.

All these can be triggered, fostered and exacerbated by all kinds of factors: internal needs, external factors, underlying personality traits, and more.


One possible explanation stems from the desire to fulfill basic psychological needs, such as a need for competence. Workaholics may devote excessive time and mental energy to work in an effort to feel competent, particularly if they don’t feel competent in other areas of their lives.

There can be other, deeper issues to address. Workaholics, and those around them, may be reliving patterns from their past, or using work as a way to ease—or ignore—emotional issues and trauma.

Others have linked workaholism to a variety of personality traits. In general, workaholics tend to be more conscientious, extraverted, and neurotic. These relationships are relatively weak, though, and there’s a good deal of variability across studies. Some of the strongest personality correlations around workaholism are traits like having a Type A personality, being motivated by achievements, or being a perfectionist. And although research on the topic is limited, there’s also evidence that narcissism is related to workaholism.

Some have speculated that workaholism is caused by external work factors, such as working in a highly demanding job (e.g., doctors and lawyers who often put in very long hours). I don’t think that somebody who enters a demanding career will become a workaholic. But I do believe it’s entirely possible that, if someone has underlying tendencies towards workaholism, working in a job that requires long hours and extreme work commitment could enhance those workaholic tendencies.

Similarly, another misconception is that if you love your job you must be a workaholic. In fact, people who have high work engagement—a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind—are probably not workaholics. Engaged workers are driven to work because they find it intrinsically pleasurable—they truly enjoy it—while workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion.

"Engaged workers are driven to work because they find it intrinsically pleasurable—they truly enjoy it—while workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion."

The impact of that difference is clear. In one of my research studies, we found that workaholism was related to feeling more guilt, anxiety, anger and disappointment—at work and home—whereas high work engagement was related to feeling more joviality, attentiveness and self-assurance both at work and home.

Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that workaholism has negative personal consequences. I led a comprehensive study (called a meta-analysis) where we summarized the findings of 89 primary studies, and found workaholism was related to lower job, family, and life satisfaction, as well as worse physical and mental health. In a more recent study, researchers found workaholism was linked to higher systolic blood pressure and greater levels of mental distress one year later.

But isn’t it true that being a workaholic can help one succeed at work? Actually, the research shows this is a myth. In our meta-analysis, we examined whether workaholics had better job performance than non-workaholics, and we found no relationship between the two. Thus, even though workaholics may spend more time thinking about and physically engaging in work than the average worker, this may not be of any benefit to his or her employer. Not only does workaholism not help improve someone’s productivity, but we found workaholism was strongly related to increased job stress and burnout.

—Dr. Malissa Clark is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia.

This article originally appeared in Anxy Magazine: the Workaholism Issue and is reprinted with permission.

Anxy is a beautifully designed magazine about our inner worlds—the ones we often refuse to share, the personal struggles, the fears that fool us into believing that the rest of the world is normal and we’re not.

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