Can’t Stop Yourself from Working? You Might Be a Workaholic
Have you ever felt like you are too obsessed with your work? Maybe you consistently feel like you ought to be working—such as feeling guilty for watching TV instead of sending just one more email tonight? Or, maybe you can’t stop thinking about work when lying in bed trying to sleep. I’m sure at times, we all have experienced this. But in the extreme, these compulsive work-related feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are indicative of workaholism.
Past research has found workaholism is related to negative individual, family, and health outcomes. Despite the “hustle” workaholic mentality that is still embraced by many professionals (consider Elon Musk’s 120-hour work week), workaholism is typically not linked to improved performance. This dichotomy underscores the need for additional analysis of workaholism’s costs and benefits.
My colleagues and I were particularly interested in examining workaholism in a more fine-grained way—with the goal of focusing on specific aspects of workaholism. We felt this was particularly important for understanding whether certain parts of workaholism were more deleterious than others. However, we quickly realized that current workaholism questionnaires did not match up very well with how researchers are now thinking about workaholism. So, we first embarked on a series of studies to develop a new measure of workaholism.
Our measure of workaholism contains four aspects and is called the Multidimensional Workaholism Scale. It was developed and tested in five studies of workers from a variety of industries throughout the United States. The questions measure:
- Motivation: how much does a person have an inner compulsion or feeling that one “ought” to be working all the time
- Habits of thought: how much a person has persistent thoughts about work
- Emotions: how much a person experiences negative emotions when not working
- Behaviors: how much a person works excessively beyond what is reasonable and expected.
To ensure the quality of our new questionnaire, we first demonstrated that the items appropriately reflected each of these four aspects. Then, we compared our new workaholism measure to other related concepts such as perfectionism and work engagement, and we also examined how strongly our measure of workaholism related to important work, family, and individual outcomes, such as job satisfaction, work-family conflict, and emotional exhaustion.
With our new measure, we uncovered new information about workaholism. For example, we found the motivational and behavioral aspects of workaholism were more closely aligned with adaptive forms of perfectionism—having excessively high standards and seeking excellence—and with work engagement. However, the habits-of-thought and emotional aspects of workaholism were more closely related to negative forms of perfectionism—fear of making mistakes and negative social evaluation. Furthermore, only the cognitive aspect of workaholism was related to lower job satisfaction.
We believe there is one additional point that deserves special emphasis. The question is not whether you are or aren’t a workaholic—because workaholism is a continuum, not an “either-or” quality. Taking this view aids in our scientific understanding of workaholism and efforts to minimize unhealthy relationships with work and improve employee health and well-being.
Overall, our new measure allows researchers to examine workaholism in a more fine-grained way than was previously possible. Understanding workaholism as consisting of four aspects allows researchers and practitioners the opportunity to develop ways to reduce negative consequences of workaholism.
For Further Reading
Balducci, C., Avanzi, L., & Fraccaroli, F. (2018). The individual “costs” of workaholism: An analysis based on multisource and prospective data. Journal of Management, 44(7), 2961-2986. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206316658348
Clark, M. A., Michel, J. S., Zhdanova, L, Pui, S., & Baltes, B. B. (2016). All work and no play? A meta-analytic examination of the correlates and outcomes of workaholism. Journal of Management, 42, 1836-1873. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206314522301
ten Brummelhuis, L. L., Rothbard, N. P., & Uhrich, B. (2017). Beyond nine to five: Is working to excess bad for health? Academy of Management Discoveries, 3(3), 262-283. https://doi.org/10.5465/amd.2015.0115
Malissa A. Clark is an Associate Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on workaholism, the work-family interface, and employee well-being.