Hard worker or addicted to work? Delineating the (work-life) boundaries

The question of how to attain a good work-life balance is not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions rekindled the debate. Working from home became the norm for many professions and this brought new challenges. For example, without the daily commute to our offices or no colleagues instigating a coffee break, we need to decide for ourselves when it is time to take a break and close our laptops. This left me wondering about those who already had difficulties with setting up work-life boundaries, even before these changes in lifestyle. 

Work addiction, or popularly termed workaholism by Oates (1971)1, is associated to uncontrollable urges and constant thoughts about work, feeling badly when not working – or refrained from work – and extreme work engagement. Although workaholism and work addiction are used as synonyms, some differences can be found between them. While the terms share common traits, such as the urges or compulsion to work, work addiction has been more associated to clinical criteria; namely, significant impairment in own life and/or relationships, or intention to decrease work hours without success.2,3 Thus, being an enthusiastic employee that works long hours does not automatically make you a work addict. 

You might be wondering whether some people are more at risk for experiencing this or it could be the influence of a very demanding work environment. The answer is, as it often happens, that it could be a bit of both.

Morkevičiūtė, Endriulaitienė, & Poškus (2021)4 conducted a systematic review and meta-analyses to identify the risk factors for workaholism and found two main explanations:

  1. Personal variable: perfectionism, a tendency to experience negative emotions, and being driven by external regulations (e.g.., obtain praise or fear of punishment) and high standards – more than by an emotional to the job.
  2. The influence of the context: a demanding work environment (e.g., workload, stress and competitiveness) can specially trigger compulsive work behaviours and, possibly, what we learned at home.

At this point, some of the readers of this blog might be skeptical: can we really consider these hard-workers addicted? Or are these the inventions of lazy people who over pathologize as an excuse? The truth is that neither workaholism nor work addiction are officially classified within the addictive related disorders or recognized in the diagnostic manuals. 

One reason that makes work addiction so difficult to diagnose is that exceeding work demands can also bring benefits and is celebrated by our society. This can be observed more clearly when compared to other less popular non-substance related addictions, such as gambling or shopping. It is important to mention that, progressively, the negative consequences will outweigh the positives. That colleague that was once recognized as a great employee might experiment a decline in productivity. It is only then when we notice that something is wrong. Regardless whether work addiction is or isn’t an official diagnosis, studies have linked it both to mental disorders and physical problems associated with stress (for example burn-out, depression, and cardiovascular diseases).2 Moreover, as it happens with most addictions, families can be severely affected by these behaviours.5

Now that we are cautiously getting back to the office, I would like to ask myself, and the readers, whether the forced home office during the pandemic helped us to delimit our own work boundaries. If the answer is ‘’not really’’, then I hope we have nice colleagues that will take us out of our work bubble to enjoy some coffee breaks.

This blog was written by Milagros Rubio (Radboud University) for RAD-blog, the blog about smoking, alcohol, drugs and diet.

1. Oates, W. E. (1971). Confessions of a workaholic: The facts about work addiction. World Publishing Company.
2. Atroszko, P. A. (2019). Work addiction as a behavioural addiction: Towards a valid identification of problematic behaviour. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry53(4), 284–285. 
3. Clark, M. A., Smith, R. W., & Haynes, N. J. (2020). The Multidimensional Workaholism Scale: Linking the conceptualization and measurement of workaholism. Journal of Applied Psychology105(11), 1281–1307. 
4. Morkevičiūtė, M., Endriulaitienė, A., & Poškus, M. S. (2021). Understanding the etiology of workaholism: The results of the systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health0(0), 1–22. 
5. Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z., & Atroszko, P. A. (2018). Ten myths about work addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions7(4), 845–857. 

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