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Volume 12, Number 5

During their working years, adults spend approximately one-third of their time at work. A person who chooses to work long hours (i.e., more than one-third of their time), perhaps compulsively, is often labeled a workaholic. Depending upon the perspective of the person applying this label (including self-application of the label), the term “workaholism” may be seen as positive or a negative.

The research that has been conducted on voluntary high work investment (commonly dubbed “workaholism), and the associated costs and benefits, suggests that the underlying motivation to work long hours is important to understand. And when motivation is examined, differences between workaholism and “work engagement” are evident.

With this distinction, workaholism is defined as an addiction to work, driven by the feeling that one “should” be working. One compulsively works longer and harder than a job necessitates, often to the neglect of other important life commitments, such as family. These individuals tend to be thinking about work when they aren’t working, and continue to work long hours even when there are negative consequences. On the other hand, work engagement is defined by a desire to work because it is inherently pleasurable. Persons engaged in their work tend to be absorbed into their work activities and typically find their work to be energizing.

Not surprisingly, workaholics experience a preponderance of negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and disappointment. These negative emotions are found to occur both at work and at home. Engaged workers experience a preponderance of positive emotions, such as joy and excitement, both at work and at home.

Furthermore, there are sharp differences in outcomes associated with workaholism and work engagement. In addition to the negative emotions experienced by the workaholic individual, there tends to be negative spillover from work to home, resulting in more conflict with their families. Poorer physical and mental health is associated with workaholism. For the employer, the workaholic’s long hours and extended effort does not result in better performance or improved productivity. Converse outcomes are seen with work engagement. Positive work to home spillover, better family relationships, better health, and improving performance and productivity are associated with work engagement.

Given the significant proportion of time spent working during adult years, it goes without saying that the quality of this time has important implications for health and well-being. As it turns out, working long hours itself doesn’t define workaholism. Rather, an underlying compulsion to work because one “should” be working, experiencing a preponderance of negative emotions, no clear performance or productivity benefit of the long hours, and negative impacts on family and one’s health are what constitute workaholism. On the positive side, engagement in one’s work (as defined above) can be associated with higher quality of life, better health and family life, and improved performance and productivity.



Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.




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