How to handle workaholism

This is the time of year when people and organisations tend to slow down.

For those who celebrate Christmas, it’s a time to wind-down before taking a break over the festive period.

But not everyone will take advantage of the break.

There are those who will continue to work.

For some, it’s because they have little choice because they’re working a shift (such as in a hospital). For others, it’s because they feel they need to continue work. That might be because of the wider organisational environment, or it might be due to personal motivations. It is this latter group who are the focus of this post.

A recent research project in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology explored the drivers for different workaholism profiles. The researchers were defined workaholism as,

“Excessive involvement in work that goes well beyond normal job requirements”

It’s an important research topic because workaholism can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, lower performance and conflicting demands between family and work. This has a knock-on effect on organisations with increased sickness absence, unhappier staff and inconsistent performance and productivity.

The research


The researchers conducted two studies, using latent profile analysis (LPA) for both. Both studies built on the following research:

Study one

The study took place in France. 465 people were sent a paper-based questionnaire. 75% of participants worked in the private sector, 25% in the public sector.

This study explored the impact of emotional dissonance and organisational climate on levels of workaholism.

Study two

The study took place in France. 780 people were sent a questionnaire. 75% of participants worked in the private sector, 25% in the public sector.

This study explored the nature of job demands, with a focus on ambiguity, and level of resources available.

Both studies used four profiles for workaholism:

  1. Very high: high levels of working compulsively and high levels of working exessively;
  2. Moderately high: high levels of working compulsively and low levels of working excessively;
  3. Moderately low: low levels of working compulsively and high levels of working excessively; and
  4. Very low: low levels of working compulsively and low levels of working excessively.

Both studies also looked at the links between self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism in relation to workaholism.

Key concepts used

Emotional dissonance: This takes place when there is a discrepancy between the emotions a person actually feels and the ones that they feel they have to display because it’s acceptable.

Job demands: Aspects of a job that require a sustained physical and/or mental effort. Excessive demands are seen as coming at a physical and/or psychological cost to the person.

Job resources: These help people achieve work-related goals and are seen as a counter-balance to the cost of job demands. Supportive colleagues are an example of a resource.

Self-determination theory: This suggests that different types of motivation drive certain work-related behaviours. There is controlled motivation when the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are not being met. And there is autonomous motivation which emerges when the basic psychological needs are met. See the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci for more on this.

Self-oriented perfectionism: An intrinsic drive a person has to uphold extremely high personal standards, alongside a tendency to harshly criticize themselves.

Socially prescribed perfectionism: When others have high standards for a person which they must meet in order to achieve social acceptance.

Workaholism:  Manifests through working excessively and working compulsively. This can be seen behaviourally (e.g. constantly working long hours) and/or cognitively (e.g. always thinking about work, even when at home).

The findings


Study one

  1. The level of emotional dissonance a person has makes it more likely that they are very high on workaholism (high compulsive, high excessive); and
  2. Organisations with high psycho-social climates (i.e. where psychological and social health and safety is actively promoted) do not necessarily lead to very low workaholism levels.

Study two

  1. Certain job demands predicted likelihood of very high workaholism profiles. In particular, jobs with high emotional load were more likely to predict very high workaholism. In addition, those working in environments with high tendency for socially prescribed perfectionism were more likely to score very highly on workaholism; and
  2. Whilst levels of independence and autonomy didn’t predict very low levels of workaholism, resources such as support from colleagues lent themselves to moderately low levels of workaholism. Interestingly, support from managers were more related to moderately high levels of workaholism.

Implications and solutions


  1. Define workaholism for your context: Whilst it’s helpful to have clear definitions of workaholism, these are rooted in academic research which can’t always be generally applied. Therefore, it might be useful to carry out your own in-house research to explore what workaholism means in your organisation’s context. Workaholism in one context may be work ethic in another. What are the behaviours that occur? What impact does it have on individuals, teams, the wider organisation? By doing this in partnership with employees and managers, makes it more relevant for your organisation and also makes it more likely that people will buy-in to any solutions.
  2. Review roles: Are there certain roles in your organisation that lend themselves more to people having to work excessively? I’ve yet to come across an organisation that does this effectively (if at all). At best, level of job demand is identified and used as part of a job evaluation score which then feeds in to salary levels. However, what is the plan to mitigate roles with high job demands? This is where HR teams can really come in to their own, by using role profiles as a way to map out hot-spots in the organisation and proactively head off stress and burnout.
  3. Audit impact of organisational change on jobs: A common effect of change that I see is where a restructure happens, jobs are cut, there are less people but…. none of the work has been cut or stopped. This means that those left behind pick up additional work, leading to increased job demands and at a time when there is likely to be lower resilience due to the organisational change. One thing I look for in restructure and consultation documentation is evidence that this very issue has been thought through and more importantly, there are ideas for mitigating any impact.
  4. Role-modelling managers: The research described in this blog post found that support from managers was more likely to lead to moderately high workaholism. I imagine that this effect is felt even more keenly when the manager concerned exhibits workaholic tendencies themselves. If you’re a manager reading this, then it really is incumbent on you to show the way. It isn’t enough to say, “Don’t work long hours” but then go ahead and do exactly that. Don’t underestimate the impact of what you do. Your staff will follow your lead in terms of what they see you do and your behaviour influences your team’s norms.
  5. Support and development plans: This links to the first three suggestions. If, for example, you’ve identified roles and teams where there is likely to be excessively high workloads, you can work with those teams and individuals to proactively develop support and development plans. This might include suggestions for individuals (e.g. tools for building resilience) and teams (e.g. ground rules for teamworking in such a high job demand environment).
  6. Keep an active eye out: One of things you can do, whether you’re working in a team with workaholic people, or you’re and HR/OD practitioner, is to keep an active eye out for people. By asking people if they’re okay and offering your support can go some way to buffering the effects of excessive job demands. If you’re a manager, it’s even more important that you pay attention to what is going on with each individual in your team. Getting emails regularly at 2am from a certain team member? Then it’s incumbent on you to sit down with that person and find out what’s driving that behaviour – and doing this in a non-judgmental way.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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