The word workaholic is so popularly used every day now that many may not even realise the severe health issue it indicates. While the popular use of the word may suggest someone who’s work-oriented, engaged in it almost obsessively and gains pleasure only from work in life, the actual definition of workaholism, first coined in 1971, points at much darker connotations.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), workaholism refers to the compulsion or uncontrollable urge to work incessantly. A workaholic, as per this definition, feels constantly compelled to work due to internal pressures, has persistent thoughts about working even when not actually working and works beyond what is reasonably expected from a worker despite the potential of harm to health and psychosocial life.
Difference between workaholism and work engagement
This comprehensive description of what workaholism suggests that the term is not the light-hearted pop-culture reference you may think it is. Over the decades since the 1970s, more research into workaholism shows that it can easily fall into the category of behavioural addiction. As per a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addiction in 2018, workaholism is a behavioural addiction that’s constantly evolving as work cultures and technologies are advancing and should not be confused with positive behavioural attributes like work engagement.
Another 2018 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology explains that while both workaholics and work-engaged people are passionate about their work, the latter express their passion for work in healthier ways. They work long hours just like workaholics but without the sense of compulsory obligation and with a strong feeling of enjoyment and fun. Engaged workers report higher job and life satisfaction and more positive emotions. They, therefore, have the psychological resources to deal with multiple life roles and crises.
The health effects of workaholism
This vital difference between workaholism and work engagement is the fact that the former is more clearly linked to negative health outcomes. The APA says that there are three sets of negative outcomes associated with workaholism, all of which can have a deep impact on your mental and physical health.
1. Work outcomes: While workaholism may be great for your career prospects, low job satisfaction and high work-related stress can lead to the development of counterproductive work behaviours. Often, it also creates a toxic work environment since not every employee works the way a workaholic employee does. Sustaining in these environments can take a toll on the entire team or organization.
2. Social outcomes: Workaholics tend to ignore or neglect their social and familial responsibilities, which inevitably leads to a breakdown in family and social functioning, marital dissatisfaction and immense work-life conflict. This may have a negative impact on the mental health of spouses, children and other dependants of the workaholic as well.
3. Individual outcomes: Workaholics tend to overwork to the point of ignoring their personal needs for health-maintaining habits. This leads to sleep deprivation, fatigue, exhaustion and burnout, which are all highly likely to weaken the immune system too. Falling sick frequently is therefore quite inevitable. Moreover, the stress and compulsion to work constantly often leads to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders too.
The negative effects of workaholism or work addiction, as indicated above, go well beyond the individual who is addicted to work. If you have this work addiction then it’s crucial to get help from a behavioural therapist or mental health professional.
For more information, read our article on How to reduce work stress and burnout.
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