What Is Workaholism? (With Examples)

By Matthew Zane
Aug. 15, 2022
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but when work becomes a compulsion, you’re in danger of becoming a workaholic. While the term has been a tongue-in-cheek way of honoring those who come in early and stay late every day, researchers are beginning to see it as a real psychological issue.

This article will cover what constitutes workaholism, the different types of workaholics, and help you identify workaholic tendencies.

Key Takeaways:

  • A workaholic compulsively works at the expense of their personal relationships and basic health needs.

  • There are motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions to workaholism that play off one another.

  • There are 4 types of workaholics: the defeatist, the saboteur, the punisher, and the martyr.

  • Working long hours or being extremely engaged in work does not necessarily make you a workaholic.

What Is Workaholism? (With Examples)

What Is a Workaholic?

A workaholic is a person who compulsively works, even at the expense of their personal relationships and basic health needs.

While there is no medical condition called “workaholism,” the concept is closely related to stress, burnout, impulse control issues, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Workaholics are addicted to the approval and public recognition that come along with success. Like most addictions, workaholism requires more work for the same level of satisfaction each time.

Workaholics become fixated on their ambitions and accomplishments to the point where experiences outside of work are no longer worthy of attention or energy.

While no two workaholics are identical, some common traits of workaholism are:

  • A compulsion to work due to internal pressure (as opposed to a superior pressuring you)

  • Nagging thoughts about work when outside of your work environment

  • Working more than your company could reasonably expect of an employee

Workaholism eventually leads to an overburdened schedule and constant stress, which can, in turn, lead to other physical and mental health issues. Note that workaholics don’t necessarily need to be obsessed with paid work – students and stay-at-home parents can also experience workaholic tendencies.

The causes of workaholism are multifaceted, and a much-needed longitudinal study could show how the roots of workaholism lay in childhood. However, anxiety, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and neuroticism are among the causes or tangential symptoms of workaholism.

Ironically, workaholics tend to be less effective than their less-stressed counterparts. Because of their tendency to take on every aspect of every project, they have a tough time delegating and trusting coworkers.

They also suffer from organizational issues, as they take on more tasks than one person can realistically handle. Finally, workaholics are often sleep-deprived, which reduces their cognitive abilities.

Is Workaholism Different Than Working Long Hours?

Yes, workaholism is not the same as working long hours. Research from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that workaholism and hours worked were only moderately correlated.

This means that someone who works 60 hours a week isn’t necessarily a workaholic and someone who works 30 hours a week isn’t immune to workaholism.

One of the significant issues with people overusing the term “workaholic” stems from a mischaracterization of the word. Instead, researchers suggest we should differentiate between “workaholism” and “work engagement.”

Researchers define work engagement as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” The key difference here is the motivation to work.

Engaged workers are intrinsically motivated to work and are pleased performing their duties, with or without kudos from superiors. Alternatively, workaholics feel a compulsion to work most hours of the day and become guilty when they are not working.

Workaholics and engaged workers also have different emotional relationships with work. Workaholics tend to be more anxious, guilty, hostile, tense, or irritated at work, while engaged workers are happier, more attentive, and more enthusiastic about their time at work.

Ultimately, the outcomes of workaholics and engaged workers vary wildly. A study by Harvard Business Review found that work hours mattered less than workaholic tendencies for determining health outcomes of employees.

Regardless of the hours worked, workaholics had more health complaints, sleep problems, feelings of cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and depressive feelings than their non-workaholic counterparts.

People who work extreme hours but are able to detach from work once it’s over are not workaholics.

On the other hand, those who work normal or short hours, but constantly ruminate about work responsibilities, are workaholics. It’s this lack of detachment between work and the rest of life that differentiates workaholics.

One interesting point from HBR’s research was comparing workaholics who liked their jobs (highly engaged workers) with workaholics who didn’t enjoy their jobs.

While workaholics who liked their jobs reported fewer health issues than workaholics who didn’t, they still had more negative outcomes than engaged workers without workaholic tendencies.

In other words, it’s possible to be an engaged worker and a workaholic. However, the workaholic aspect of your personality does nothing to boost your productivity and still leads to an increased risk of health problems.

Dimensions of Workaholism

Seeing as working long hours isn’t a guarantee of workaholism, how can we differentiate hard workers from workaholics? Research indicates that workaholism is a multidimensional concept with the following dimensions:

  • Motivational. The inner pressure or compulsion to work, often self-imposed rather than externally demanded, is a key element of workaholism. The feeling that you “ought to” be working on your off-time is central to the addictive nature of workaholism.

    The jury is still out, scientifically, on whether workaholics experience joy from working or pain from failing to work, but the result is the same: work, or feel less good about yourself.

    Tied up in the motivational aspect of workaholism are feelings of self-worth and ego – workaholics don’t feel like worthy people without work, and that serves as their motivation for work.

  • Cognitive. Workaholism typically involves “persistent, uncontrollable thoughts about work.” These are employees who are never able to unplug from work, even during leisure time.

Ruminating about work all the time leads to the next aspect of workaholism:

  • Emotional. When a workaholic isn’t working, they feel bad. It’s related to the motivational dimension of workaholism because when you feel like you’re failing to do something you ought to be doing, you feel guilty, anxious, or frustrated.

  • Behavioral. The behavioral dimension of workaholism is the one we normally think of when we hear the term. Workaholics behave differently; they work more and think about work more than any organization would realistically expect from an employee.

    Remember the above differentiation between a hard-worker and a workaholic, because working long hours doesn’t necessarily make you a workaholic.

Four Types of Workaholics

So far, we’ve been talking about workaholics like they’re a monolithic group – this isn’t the case. Various organizations have come up with four different types of workaholics, listed below:

  1. The defeatist. The defeatist gets satisfaction from denying herself pleasure. The more she sacrifices for work and gets “atta-girls” from the higher-ups, the better she feels about her relationship with work.

    She lives for the hit of joy that “thank yous” provide. She’ll cover for her coworkers, avoid raise discussions to remain in the boss’s good books, and still feel unworthy of any praise she gets.

  2. The saboteur. The saboteur throws every aspect of their life outside of work under the bus to be the best employee he can be. He sabotages relationships by never making time for loved ones, and his health suffers because he can’t make time for healthy habits or a doctor’s appointment.

    This person will also manufacture work problems where there are none. For instance, they’ll lose important files to make more work for themselves or miss deadlines, so they have an excuse to rush and be justifiably harried at work.

  3. The punisher. A big part of the American ethos is that nothing worth having comes easily. The punisher takes this concept to another level, believing that if they’re not suffering, they aren’t doing enough to get ahead.

    While that feeling of pride after completing an arduous task is undoubtedly a wholesome emotion, punishers actively seek out a never-ending string of increasingly difficult jobs as a way of chasing that feeling.

    They’re often seen as confident, but this confidence can lead to recklessness that endangers their performance and those they have to work alongside.

  4. The martyr. The martyr loves the fact that they get to complain about how hard their job is, gripe about how incompetent their coworkers/managers are, and decline help to show how great they are despite it all. He doesn’t really want a lightened workload; he wants everyone to pity his unfortunate situation.

    He loves to “save” everyone from their work problems and gets his jollies from the fact that nothing could get done without his tireless efforts. This type of workaholic isn’t just a danger to himself; he’s also a true pain in the ass to work with.

These four types are not mutually exclusive, and most people have some element of each lurking in their personality. If you can recognize and shut down these tendencies in their infancy, you may be able to avoid becoming a workaholic.

Workaholism Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What defines a workaholic?

  2. A workaholic is one who compulsively works to a point of unhealthy excess. A workaholic is also unable to detach from their work. Their condition is very common in modern society.

  3. What causes workaholism?

  4. Some causes of workaholism can include low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and attachment issues. Workaholism has many different signs and symptoms so it makes it difficult to pinpoint a cause. The condition still needs to be studied more thoroughly.

  5. Is workaholism a disorder?

  6. Yes, workaholism is a real disorder. The effects of workaholism are very common. It is a real mental health condition where a person struggles to alter the behavior at the expense of their own welfare.

Final Thoughts

The term workaholic is often used playfully to describe highly engaged workers, but genuine workaholism is a serious issue. Workaholics don’t get any more done than other employees – they just suffer more as a result of their unhealthy relationship with work.

If you see yourself exhibiting some workaholic behaviors, try setting clear guidelines for how much you work and filling non-work hours with engaging activities that allow you to take your mind off work responsibilities.

Additionally, research has shown that workaholics are often more extrinsically motivated (by things like pay and status) than intrinsically motivated. Take a step back and ask yourself why you work, and you may be able to dispel some workaholic tendencies.

Remember, workaholism doesn’t work and leads to negative outcomes. Your productivity won’t increase, but your stress levels and risk of burnout certainly will.

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Matthew Zane

Matthew Zane is the lead editor of Zippia's How To Get A Job Guides. He is a teacher, writer, and world-traveler that wants to help people at every stage of the career life cycle. He completed his masters in American Literature from Trinity College Dublin and BA in English from the University of Connecticut.

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