Of all the addictions a person could have, workaholism is often thought to be the “respectable” one, says Malissa Clark, a PhD student in organizational industrial psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. “I think a large part of that comes from the mentality that we have in North America about working,” she says — we tend to reward those who log excessive hours at the office. We assume people who are willing to toil into the wee hours of the night are simply more dedicated than employees who rarely miss their kids’ bedtime. One organization where Clark used to work, for example, would award plaques to employees who put in more than 80 hours in a week. She admits she received one of these plaques — and proudly displayed it in her home.
In 1971, when American psychologist Wayne A. Oates introduced the term “workaholic” in his book Confessions of a Workaholic, he defined it as “a person whose involvement in work has become so excessive that it disturbs or interferes with his bodily health, personal happiness, interpersonal relations, and social functioning.” But in this day and age, a certain amount of work-life imbalance has come to pervade workplaces everywhere — so much so that a 2005 Statistics Canada study found that 31% of Canadians aged 19 to 64 self-identify as workaholics. Increasingly, it has become very hard to tell: What’s the difference between a workaholic and somebody who just works a lot?
Clark and her colleagues at Wayne State University wanted to find out. Recently, her team published the first study to link workaholism to certain key personality traits — it’s a tool that could prove useful for helping managers decipher who in their midst is driven by passion, and who is driven by a more self-centred compulsion.
Clark and her team looked at data collected from a questionnaire given to 322 students who worked an average of 36 hours a week on top of their studies. Clark wanted to see whether students who reported workaholic tendencies also shared a certain set of personality traits. The subjects were given a list of personal statements with which they could agree or disagree — and the results proved remarkably consistent. Those with workaholic tendencies also exhibited a host of related negative traits, among them: narcissism, perfectionism and impatience.
Ironically, many of the characteristics common to workaholics are not conducive to effective work habits.
Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, says workaholics tend to expect perfection of not only themselves but others, “which makes for an awful team member.”
Narcissistic workaholics often become defensive and angry under threatening conditions, he says. “Those are obnoxious qualities that make someone difficult to work with.” In addition, Clark says, workaholics might also be unwilling to delegate because they find it difficult to share the workload.
Of course, there are certain things workaholics excel at, Clark’s study found. For example, workaholics often display a talent and a preference for multi-tasking. Clark says that people who possess workaholic traits tend to gravitate toward organizations that reward workaholic behaviour, which can lead to success in the short term. But in the long term, workaholics are often ineffective because a person working compulsively isn’t necessarily working efficiently.
“There are some people who create work, which is not very effective,” says Clark. “They might take unnecessary time because they are looking for their work to be perfect, which slows down the end result.”
Clark says that motivation is ultimately what differentiates a workaholic from someone who works a lot. A workaholic works because their sense of self-worth is tied to output — not because they are genuinely passionate about their profession or their contribution to the team.
If a manager thinks he might have a workaholic employee on his hands, Clark recommends asking the employee why he is working late. If the person answers that he just can’t get this project right, or he feels guilty going home before he gets something finished, he might be a compulsive worker.
Paying attention to the related traits identified in Clark’s study could help employers better understand workaholic employees, who may appear to be diligent at first but whose negative behaviours could end up permeating the entire organization. In an interview situation, Pychyl says, a manager will be able to detect telltale signs of narcissism or workaholic habits. “There’s a narrowness of focus on self and on work that become obvious in an interview,” says Pychyl. “You might think that’s what you want, but it does come back and bite you.”