Americans have a global reputation for being hard workers, innovators, and goal-oriented individuals. But while a successful working life has many benefits, it comes at a cost, not only for employees but also for their organizations. The average full-time worker is putting in 47 hours each week, almost an extra day’s worth of time, Gallup reports. In fact, Americans work more than any others in the industrialized world, taking less vacation time, working longer days, and retiring later, according to ABC News. And with smartphones and other devices widely used, workers can now stay connected to work on a constant basis. The topic of workaholism is more relevant than ever in the business world, and the effects are underestimated in terms of impact on quality of life and economic productivity.
The way Americans view workaholism might even perpetuate it. As Bryan Robinson points out in Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, “Workaholism is the best-dressed of all the addictions. It is enabled by our society’s dangerous immersion in overwork.” Robinson explains that those who suffer from work addiction might openly admit to or even brag about their behavior as a way to testify to their passion for work and their nonstop schedule. Our culture views workaholics in a positive light, Robinson says, but fails to take into account the depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and stress-related illnesses that accompany the addiction. Because of this, the condition isn’t always taken seriously, despite the serious consequences of working long hours for an extended period of time.
What Makes a Workaholic?
To be considered a workaholic, individuals must have a “compulsive need to overwork and rarely feel satisfied or relaxed unless they’re doing something related to their job,” according to Addiction.com, a resource operated by leading addiction treatment provider Elements Behavioral Health. To reduce the anxiety and fear they feel, workaholics immerse themselves in work. It is important to note that workaholics are not the same as people who work hard at their jobs: The central difference is that the need to work is compulsive rather than healthy and controlled.
Work addiction is often associated with adverse consequences like conflict with loved ones, stress-related physical injuries, psychological disorders, and more. And work addiction isn’t tied to better performance. In fact, workaholics are more likely than those who don’t work compulsively to suffer from “low job satisfaction; low satisfaction with life in general; low work performance (working harder, but less effectively)” and are even more likely to miss work due to illness, Addiction.com reports.
The number of people who suffer from work addiction isn’t known. There are a wide range of estimates due to lack of agreement in how to define and measure this disorder. However, Addiction.com offers the following summary of industry findings: “In a 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature, researchers at the University of Southern California and Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K., estimated the overall prevalence of workaholism among U.S. workers to be roughly 10% … Another literature review estimated the prevalence at 8% to 17.5% among college-educated workers.”
Warning Signs of a Workaholic
Despite the uncertainty about exactly how many Americans are workaholics, there are common symptoms and warning signs. Workaholism may be more difficult to spot because American culture focuses on rewarding hard work. However, once people are aware of the warning signs, it’s easier to be on the lookout. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale lists seven criteria for workaholism. This scale has become more widely adopted as the United States begins to take work addiction more seriously. By responding to each of the following statements with “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” “often,” or “always,” individuals are able to self-evaluate their behavior.
- You think of how you can free up more time to work.
- You spend much more time working than you initially intended.
- You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression.
- You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
- You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
- You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
Managers can also be on the lookout for warning signs like these among their employees. Studies have found that workaholism is more prevalent in industries like construction, commercial trade, agriculture, communication, and consulting. Researchers aren’t sure why some people are more likely to become addicted to work than others, but risk factors such as having a type-A personality, being part of the baby boomer generation, and having parents who worked too much all come into play.
One way to reduce the likelihood of workaholism is to establish a healthy work-life balance, and Americans traditionally struggle with this. Forbes cites one 2014 study that found U.S. workers don’t take all of the annual vacation days they are given. The same article points out that the United States ranked last for work-life balance among 23 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. For even more context, Forbes notes that Americans averaged 1,788 work hours a year in 2013 compared to 1,388 in Germany, 1,411 in Denmark, and 1,489 in France. And Americans are not improving these habits with time, Forbes says: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 10 million Americans, or about 9 percent of the total workforce, vacationed in July 1980; in 2014, just seven million vacationed in July, or less than 5 percent. Taking vacations is one of the most important ways to create a work-life balance because doing so improves mental health, increases mindfulness, and strengthens family relationships.
Redefining Success: Managing for Work-Life Balance
Because managers play such an important role in establishing workplace culture and norms, they can help their employees improve their work-life balance. Some of the side effects of overwork include higher operating and productivity costs, absenteeism, and lower performance, so it also benefits managers when employees work smarter, not harder.
But how can managers cultivate healthy habits among workers? The Balance, a finance and investing resource for businesses and consumers, says it all starts with company policy and initiatives. “Employers are not responsible for providing work balance for their employees, but they can assist the employees to seek and maintain their own work balance … The decisions, policies, values, and expectations in your workplace support employees in their work-life balance choices.” Companies are placing a high value on work-life balance by implementing strategies like the following.
- Offering a flexible work schedule. This doesn’t mean that employees can completely control their work hours. Instead, a flexible work policy establishes boundaries while also giving employees the agency to make decisions about their schedule. This might mean allowing employees to come in one or two hours earlier in the morning so they can beat afternoon traffic, or establishing a telecommuting or work from home policy.
- Providing paid time off (PTO). Instead of separating time off into categories like paid sick leave, personal days and vacation days, many modern offices have streamlined the time off policy by implementing PTO. This approach “treats employees like adults who are capable of making decisions about how, when, and why to use the paid time off supplied by the employer” rather than having to account for how the time off was spent, The Balance says. Another way to use PTO to create a work-life balance is by allowing little or no carryover into the next calendar year. This encourages employees to actually use their time off.
- Sponsoring employee and family events. This helps foster team building and friendship among employees, as well as including families into the company culture so that employees can better balance work and home. Some ideas include picnics, bonfires, group sports events, and even volunteering for a charity as a group. Another way to create a family-friendly work environment is to offer on-site child care.
Managers are in a unique position to create a corporate culture that celebrates a more balanced life. By making a few key changes to company policies and events, managers can help lessen the prevalence of work addiction and make a positive difference in the lives of their employees.
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