The IOpener: Workaholism—It’s Good! It’s Bad! It’s Inconsistently Defined
Qin Cai and Steven Toaddy
In recent years, there is increasing research interest in workaholism (Clark, Michel, Zhdanova, Pui, & Baltes, 2014). However, if one has read research articles on this topic (e.g., Aziz & Zickar, 2006; Fassel, 1990; Machlowitz, 1980; Mudrack & Naughton, 2001; Ng, Sorensen, Feldman, 2007; Oates, 1971; Porter, 1996; Robinson, 1998; Schaufeli, Taris, & van Rhenen, 2008; Scottl, Moore, & Miceli, 1997; Snir & Harpaz, 2012; Spence & Robbins, 1992; Sussman, 2012), it is not difficult to notice that there is lack of consensus in definition of workaholism (Clark et al., 2014). Because of the situation of multiple definitions for workaholism, conclusions can not be clearly drawn from different research, because there is no guarantee as to whether the differences among these research originate from differences between research per se, or just from different definitions that researchers adopted, where the latter means that basically researchers are measuring different things. For example, according to Ng et al. (2007), workaholics should have career satisfaction and success; however, this would not be the case according to Spence and Robbins (1992). If someone looks at the definitions of workaholism these researchers used in their research, it will be clear why they would not agree with each other. In the definition given by Ng et al. (2007), workaholics enjoy working, whereas, in the definition provided by Spence and Robbins (1992), they do not. This is, suffice it to say, troublesome.
What Is Workaholism?
In order to get a better sense of the meaning of workaholism, instead of continuing on the endless literature reviews in I-O psychological researches, the first author turned to some others who are working in not I-O psychology but in related fields, because these people should also have heard of and/or dealt with workaholism in the workplace. So on this topic, the first author interviewed four people: Donna May,1 who is a social worker; Erica Harriss,2 who is an entrepreneur; an anonymous HR professional3; and an anonymous counseling psychologist.4 Each of them received the same questions regarding their perceptions of workaholism. The first (and the most important) question was “What is workaholism—or what are workaholics?” Because Clark et al. (2014) summarized and provided a list of workaholism definitions out of previous research, let’s compare and contrast the definitions provided by these four interviewees and those listed in Clark et al. (2014).
When asked for a definition of workaholism, the counseling psychologist gave a very specific definition: “A workaholic is someone who works excessively; doesn’t have work-life balance; and isn’t available, both emotionally and physically, for family and friends.” This definition shares a lot of commonalities with those definitions listed in Clark et al. (2014). For instance, several research (e.g., Aziz & Zickar, 2006; Ng etal., 2007; Oates, 1971; Porter, 1996; Spence & Robbins, 1992) all explicitly included words such as “obsessive,” “excessive,” or “highly involved” in their definitions of workaholism; and several workaholism definitions (e.g., Porter, 1996; Robinson, 1998; Schaufeli, Taris, & van Rhenen, 2008; Scottl, Moore, & Miceli, 1997) all mentioned that workaholics neglected their life outside of work—for example, neglecting family. Additionally, the counseling psychologist brought up later in the conversation that “Workaholism is like an addiction,” for which some researchers (e.g., Fassel, 1990; Snir & Harpaz, 2012) shared the same thoughts.
The HR professional shared some similar thoughts of “being obsessed with work” with the counseling psychologist and with some I-O researchers (cited above): “Workaholics are those who are dedicated to and who sacrifice their life to work.” However, the HR professional added “They are misguided, and they should learn how to prioritize their work.” The individual provided the reason why people show up as workaholics: Those people either have too much work to do or want to impress others to make themselves feel important. Workaholics “create work that is neither productive nor valuable.” Compared to those who are engaged in work, workaholics spend more time in doing the same amount of work. It may be that the workaholic is “in a level challenging them more than necessary potentially based on their knowledge and skills.” Employees need to “have a balance of life, to help them get more done when getting back from rest.”
Erica (the entrepreneur): “Negative connotation. A workaholic is someone who is out of balance in their life. It is the opposite of being lazy.”5 Besides the similar point of “out of balance” with the counseling psychologist, to Erica, it seems that workaholism and laziness are the two ends of the same continuum. Both sides have negative connotation, and balance locates in the middle of the continuum.
Donna (the social worker): “A workaholic is someone working excessively as the word alcoholic references someone who drinks excessively.” Throughout the interview, she mentioned several times that one should maintain a “balance” to have a “healthy” life. Workaholism is “detrimental” and “should not be encouraged for any reason.”
For all four of the interviewees, “balance” is something missing in workaholics.6 However, none of the definitions listed in in Clark et al. (2014) explicitly included “balance.” Maybe researchers should consider whether “balance” should be included in the definition of workaholism in future studies.
Things Go Beyond Workaholism
According to the counseling psychologist, workaholism is just a thing, like a symptom, through which we look for what is going wrong. Workaholism per se is not the thing we want to study. “Perceiving workaholism as positive or negative is not the major thing. It depends on personal experience, depends on how it affects that person’s personal life.” It may be the motivation behind the workaholism that researchers should look into. For example, workaholics may use workaholism as a distraction from their trauma. It is their way to cope with their negative emotions. In the similar vein, one of the reasons that the HR professional gave for why people become workaholics is that people choose to be workaholics because of cultural or economic factors. When the economy takes a downturn, employees may feel very insecure and have to work the hardest and longest to stay employed.
Maybe digging deeper underneath workaholism to look for what workaholics try to hide under the mask of workaholism is what researchers really need to do. This is similar to those I-O psychologists looking for mediators and moderators in the relationship between workaholism and other variables. Workaholism itself may not be that important. What is critical is those things hidden behind workaholism.
Some Thoughts to Share
First, considering that there exist too many workaholism definitions in the I-O psychology research, there is a need to combine and unify them into one. Here is one reason. At the end of the interview, the counseling psychologists commented: “Just talk to those people who perceive themselves to be workaholics.” Upon immediate reflection, one might consider it very reasonable to do that to get the idea of what workaholism is. However, when thinking over this response, one might realize that it is not as easy as it seems to be. For example, what if an individual thinks that (s)he may be a workaholic but is not sure (and this might be the case for many people)? This person may very likely go to check the definition of workaholism; however, in the current situation, it would be difficult for this person to get the answer because of too many definitions of the term. Might an individual shop around for the one that either vindicates or exonerates?
Second, people’s opinions of workaholism can change. Two of the interviewees said that their perspectives on workaholism had changed over time. The counseling psychologist used to perceive alcoholism more positively as it can contribute to success; but after studying psychology, she is more aware of the potential harmful effects of workaholism on individuals' lives. Erica (the entrepreneur) thought that her perspective on workaholism changed as well. She used to see workaholics as those working busily and lonely, but now she thought that there were ways in which workaholics could keep a balance of their life while keeping a busy work schedule. Thus, when we conduct research on workaholism, it may be necessary for us to take a dynamic perspective.
Third, getting opinions from those outside of the I-O psychology community can be beneficial. During the interviews, these four non-I-O people brought in some fresh thoughts over the topic. For instance, all four interviewees mentioned there was some lack of balance in workaholism, which those definitions listed in in Clark et al. (2014) didn’t explicitly include, and Erica (the entrepreneur) giving the thought that workaholism is the opposite laziness7 might add new thoughts into looking at workaholism in a different perspective. For some workaholics, maybe they just want to prove that they are not lazy in the first place, so they moved from the laziness side to the workaholism side along the same continuum; however, they misjudged it and went too far over the middle, balanced point of the continuum.
Okay So What Am I Supposed to Do Now?
Ah, good of you to have asked! There are different contributions that different individuals are in a position to make—practitioners, researchers, faculty, students, and so on—so here’s a list of items that you could choose to undertake based on your available resources:
- For researchers, please come together and make efforts to unify multiple definitions into one, or at least clearly state the definition that you will use and adopt a measure pertinent to the definition you use in your research.
- For practitioners, be aware that there are different definitions of one construct and make sure you use research results based on the definition and associated measure pertinent to your practice (until researchers fix this problem by following the first item).
- For faculty, please include the information that there are multiple definitions of a construct when teaching courses so students will be warned.
- For students, please check the definitions and measures when you read literatures and stay alert that conclusions may come from different definitions and/or measures.
- For all I-O psychologists, don’t forget that people in other fields outside of I-O psychology may have different perspectives that psychologists can benefit from. Be sure to include their opinions.
- For everyone, remember that this is not just about workaholism, really. The examples that we provided are, sure, but you could consider running through this same exercise for a whole suite of phenomena: from worker attitudes to intelligence theories to organizational outcomes and beyond.
 Donna May works as a life transformation coach at Connections to Success.
2 Erica Harriss is the founder of Saving Grace Beauty, LLC.
3 Who has been working in HR positions for 16 years.
4 Who has more than 10 years of work experience in counseling psychology.
5 Not the absence of laziness—the opposite. Sit with that one for a minute.
6 It is possible that you already noticed this.
7 WE TOLD YOU TO SIT WITH IT FOR A MINUTE.
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