Engaged in Work or Married to Work

Exploring Key Differences between Workaholism & Work Engagement

Is there such a thing as being addicted to work? Is it really addiction, or is it simply the expression of a person who is highly engaged in what they are doing?

To truly understand if there is a difference, we need to go back to the root of what is considered pathological in the psychological sciences. Generally speaking, psychopathology is said to occur when a person’s cognitions and/or behaviours are such, that they negatively impact on their day-to-day ability to function normally, with further negative consequent impact on their well-being and relationships.

With this in mind, it is worthwhile to consider the term workaholism from the person who first coined it, Baptist Clergyman and professor of the psychology of religion, Wayne Oates. In his 1968 article in Pastoral Psychology, Oates first describes the term as an “uncontrollable need to work incessantly”, and further describes workaholism in his 1971 book, Confessions of a workaholic as “a person whose need to work has become so excessive that it creates noticeable disturbances in his healthy, happiness or relationships.”

Fast forward to more modern research on the topic, and workaholism is defined as consisting of three underlying dimensions, the so-called ‘workaholism-triad’. The triad consists of; work involvement (high work commitment, high time devotion to it); drive (compulsion to work, owing to internal pressures) and; work enjoyment (work is experienced as pleasant and fulfilling). The mixture of the triad components leads to the creation of six different types of workaholics:

  • Non-enthusiastic workaholics: high on commitment and drive, but low on enjoyment;
  • Enthusiastic workaholics: high on pleasure, commitment and drive and;
  • Work enthusiasts: high on commitment and enjoyment, but lack the drive to work hard.

When considering Oates’ and more modern descriptions of workaholism in relation to the generalised description of psychopathology above, it starts to become clear that workaholism is in fact a form of psychopathology. The difficulty we now face however, is that the description of work enthusiasts very much resembles what we commonly consider an engaged employee to be. Generally speaking, engaged employees hold an energetic and effective connection to their work, and see themselves as capable of dealing with the demands of their work. In more specific terms, work engagement speaks to a positive, work-related mindset, which is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption.

  • Vigour refers to high levels of energy and mental resilience for work, a willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence when faced with challenge;
  • Dedication speaks to a strong involvement in work, an experience of significance, challenge, pride, enthusiasm and inspiration;
  • Absorption refers to being happily engrossed in, and completely concentrated on one’s work, with time passing effortlessly, and where one struggles to disconnect from the task at hand.

In practice, engaged employees will work harder (vigour), are more involved in their work (dedication), and are happy to be engrossed (absorbed) in their work. At this point, you would not be wrong for asking but how then is this different to the description of a work enthusiast, which is defined as component to the workaholic trifecta?

The key difference lies in compulsion, or, in the case of the engaged employee, the lack thereof. Engaged workers lack the compulsive drive to work that is seen in workaholics, a characteristic which is endemic in any form of addiction. For the engaged worker, work is seen as being fun and enjoyable, but not a compulsion. Research here indicates that engaged workers work hard because they like working, rather than as consequence of an irresistible inner urge that they could not contain.

Given all this, what then are the major components of workaholism? As discussed above, a core feature is compulsion to work, which is also often accompanied by devoting time to work which would well exceed that reasonably expected by an employer. The next aspect, linked to the compulsion to work, is a generalised obsession with it. That is to say; workaholics persistently and frequently continue to think about work, long after the workday is over, and when not working (think being on holiday, but still mulling over work in the mind). Related to this, is the fact that workaholics will devote so much time to their work (whether at work, working, or thinking about work) that life outside of their work becomes neglected (and they work hard not because of external factors, such as financial rewards, but rather as product of the inner urge, need and compulsion to work).

So, with all this said, the key difference here can be defined as follows: an engaged worker is pulled to work because they enjoy work for its own sake. The workaholic is pushed to work because they cannot resist the inner obsessive urge to do so. In practice, the workaholics compulsions lead to certain patterns of behaviour, these include:

  • Working time: working beyond what is required and spending more time on work than their colleagues;
  • Work characteristics: in an attempt to keep working, workaholics will often create more work for themselves, refuse to delegate, create self-imposed deadlines or making a project more complicated than is necessary. This is often also accompanied with poor quality social relationships with others at work.
  • Health & Well-being: workaholics will report high job strain and low life-satisfaction (compared to work engaged persons, who report high life satisfaction).
  • Organisational behaviour: generally, workaholics work hard, but not always smart (debunking the myth that workaholics are extremely productive), and where this is partly owing to their creating difficulties for themselves and co-workers, being perfectionists (which often stifles progress), are rigid and inflexible (they struggle to adapt to work dynamics) and will not delegate work to others.

With all this said then, the thin line between work engagement and workaholism lies primarily within the compulsion to work, rather than being drawn to work. The inherent enjoyment of working defines the productivity of the engaged employee, whereas the neurosis of compulsion drives the hard, but not necessarily smart work of the workaholic. If you think that you, or someone you know is suffering from the debilitating effects of workaholism, contact psyQ Consulting today for your first, free, 1 hour consultation and assessment.

References & Further Reading

Buelens, M., & Poelmans, S. A. Y. (2004). Enriching the Spence and Robbins typology of workaholism: Demographic, motivational and organizational correlates. Organizational Change Management, 17, 459–470.

Burke, R. J. (2001). Workaholism components, job satisfaction, and career progress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 2339–2356.

Killinger, B. (2006). The workaholic breakdown syndrome. In R. J. Burke (Ed.), Research companion to working time and work addiction (pp. 61–88). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Machlowitz, M. (1980). Workaholics: Living with them, working with them. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52,  397–422.

McMillan, L. H. W., & O’Driscoll, M. P. (2004). Workaholism and health: Implications for organizations. Organizational Change Management, 17, 509–519.

Porter, G. (2001). Workaholic tendencies and the high potential for stress among co-workers. International Journal of Stress Management, 8, 147–164.

Porter, G., & Herring, R. A. (2006). The unlikely referral of workaholics to an employee assistance program. In R. J. Burke (Ed.), Research companion to working time and work addiction (pp. 242–269). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., Gonzalez-Roma. V., & Bakker, A. B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A confirmative factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.

Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Bakker, A. B. (2006). Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? On the differences between work engagement and workaholism. In R. J. Burke (Ed.), Research companion to working time and work addiction (pp. 193–217). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Schaufeli, W., Taris, T., LeBlanc, P., Peeters, M., Bakker, A. B., & De Jonge, J. (2001). Maakt arbeid gezond? Op zoek naar de bevlogen werknemer (Can work produce health? The quest for the engaged worker). De Psycholoog, 36, 422–428.

Spence, J. T., & Robbins, A. S. (1992). Workaholism: Definition, measurement, and preliminary results. Journal of Personality Assessment, 58, 160–178.

Taris, T. W., Schaufeli, W. B., & Verhoeven, L. C. (2005). Workaholism in the Netherlands: Measurement and implications for job strain and work-nonwork conflict. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 54, 37–60. Taris, T.W., Schaufeli, W.B., Shimazu, A. (2010). The push and pull of work: The differences between workaholism and work engagement. In A.B Bakker & M.P Leiter (Eds.), Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research (pp. 39-53). New York, NY: Psychology Press.