Motivated and highly engaged employees are essential to any thriving organisation. However, it can be tricky for managers to distinguish between an employee who’s hard-working and one who’s a workaholic.

On the surface, they might look the same – both put in extra hours and may take on additional projects – however, the two have very different outcomes for an employee’s wellbeing and overall workplace productivity.

Studies show that today, anywhere from 10 per cent to 25 per cent of professionals are addicted to work. In fact, this phenomenon is so common, the United States acknowledges 5 July as National Workaholics Day, which is a day dedicated to raise awareness of the issue and its impact on employees and companies.

So how can you spot a workaholic, and how can you manage workaholism in the workplace?

Understanding the drivers of workaholism

Workaholism, or work addiction, is more than just putting in long hours on the job. According to Psychology Today, a workaholic can be described as a “work-obsessed individual who gradually becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control, in a compulsive drive to gain approval and public recognition of success”.

When looking at how to define a workaholic against a hard worker, it comes down to behavioural and psychological factors. While hard-working employees are productive, they know when to switch off. They’re committed to the company’s vision and, because of this, will often go above and beyond in their role. Overall, they have a higher level of job satisfaction and engagement with a company.

In contrast, workaholics are:

  • Motivated by fear or pressure. Workaholics aren’t putting in extra hours because they’re highly engaged. Instead, they feel internal pressure to work; in other words, they feel like they should be working, rather than want to be working.
  • Unable to enjoy time off. Workaholics often feel guilty or anxious when they aren’t working. This can include lunch breaks, evenings and weekends, or even annual leave and public holidays.
  • Constantly thinking about work. It can be hard for workaholics to mentally switch off from their job. Work is always on their mind, even when they’re not working.
  • Compelled to overwork. Whether in terms of hours or deliverables, workaholics go far beyond what’s reasonably expected from a company and often work late into the evening or on weekends.

While they may put in more hours than their counterparts, workaholics typically are less productive at work because they are overworked, rarely delegate and are often perfectionists. In fact, a study found that fully recovered workaholics accomplished their tasks in 50 hours, while previously they struggled to achieve them in 80 hours.

Workaholics may also experience lower job satisfaction and work-life balance, and may even experience mental health issues. Studies have shown that younger adults – and in particular millennials – are prone to work addiction, however, it is unrelated to gender, education, marital status, or types of employment.

How to identify workaholic symptoms

Workaholism can be hard to spot because the signs look similar to a highly engaged employee. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but the Bergen Work Addiction Scale was developed by Norwegian researchers to help diagnose work addiction.

Employees rank themselves from 1 (Never) to 5 (Always) on the scale. If your team member answers “often” or “always” to at least four of these statements, it could be a warning that they are suffering from work addiction:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, or depression
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work but you don't listen
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working
  • You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities, or exercise because of your work
  • You work so much that it has negatively affected your health.

Constructive ways to manage workaholism

  • Start the conversation. Remind your team of the importance of work-life balance in Australia and begin to raise awareness by starting a conversation on work addiction over a company meeting or a morning tea. Send the 10 red flags of workaholism and the Bergen Work Addiction Scale to your team to encourage self-reflection and assessment.
  • Set the expectations and the pace. Workaholics will always try and get extra work done, and it’s up to managers to set the tone and not fuel the fire. Be clear on working times and enforce them. For example, if employees email you outside set working hours, tell them you’ll respond during working hours.
  • Build priorities. Some employees may end up working too much because they feel the need to accomplish everything at once. As a manager you can mitigate this pressure through prioritisation. When setting tasks, be clear on which ones are important and which ones can take a back seat. Limit the number of objectives with specific tasks, deadlines and outcomes in order to manage the workload and focus their attention. Project management tools, such as Asana or Trello, can help you have a more transparent vision of your team’s tasks and workflow.
  • Provide the right resources. When team members have the right resources – including manpower, budget, and project management tools – they report higher satisfaction and lower burnout rates. Managers should pull aside any team members who show signs of work addiction, and ask what they need to make their lives and jobs easier.

Lastly, if you or another team member feels an employee’s personal life and mental health are at risk because of work addiction, it’s best to encourage them to seek professional help.

By managing work addiction and providing your team with work-life balance strategies, you’ll cultivate a positive workplace culture for your entire team.

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