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As global competition increases, people have been asked to learn to do more with less. Companies claim that employee layoffs are necessary to save the business and retain jobs for at least some people. Among the many undesirable effects from this type of action is that it leaves all the existing work (if not more) to be done by fewer employees. Everyone is asked to dig in and do whatever possible. Where will it stop? Who decides how much is too much? Some employees struggle to meet work demands while maintaining a strong family life and involvement in outside activities. Others seem to thrive on the challenge. In fact, a few might seem to prefer working long hours. It is this very last group of employees that the company would be wise to think about more carefully. These individuals might be addicted to their work, be workaholics, and this work pattern can have negative consequences for business operations.
The term “workaholic” is often used in a lighthearted way. Some people seem to take pride in identifying themselves as a person consumed by their work. The topic has a serious side, however, and can be described as work addiction. In recent years, technological advances have increased our ability to work anywhere, anytime. The resulting pressure for 24/7 connectivity may push more and more people into putting work ahead of all other activities. Although this may at first seem to benefit the companies for which they work, offsetting issues negatively impact business operations.
Here the words workaholism and work addiction are used synonymously, although with recognition given to the work of researchers and authors who make various distinctions. Work addiction/workaholism is a manifestation of excessive work that carries with it a number of consequences to both the individual and that person’s network of relationships both personal and professional. Again, both personal and professional relationships are considered, but the emphasis here is on the business consequences and, therefore, professional interaction. Social changes that seem to encourage excessive work, including technological advances, are considered for the ways in which they encourage either the conscious belief that more work is always better or the seemingly unconscious behaviors that allow work to increasingly intrude into other life activities.
Research Perspectives On Workaholism
In a summary of research on workaholism, Burke (2000) offers a number of points for consideration:
- A variety of definitions and measurements are used to specify workaholism, but some consensus surfaces on the idea of working long hours beyond what is required by external demands, financial need, or a particular work situation.
- Estimates on the prevalence of workaholics range from 5% at the low end up to at least 23% of workers in various samples.
- Researchers agree that the workaholic individual is more likely to suffer both psychological and physical problems
Together these points highlight the importance of the issue to managers—the problem does exist, it involves a substantial number of people, and it leads to outcomes with negative impact on the work setting.
Family therapists and counselors have long considered work to be a potentially addictive behavior in the same way that gambling can become addictive. Robinson (1989) offers a Work Addiction Risk Test (WART) from which scores indicate whether a person is NOT work addicted, MILDLY work addicted, or HIGHLY work addicted. Items include “I get impatient when I have to wait for someone else or when something takes too long, such as long, slow-moving lines”; “I overly commit myself by biting off more than I can chew”; “I spend a lot of time mentally planning and thinking about future events while tuning out the here and now”; and 22 other items of that type. As a psychotherapist, Robinson is concerned about the individual who works in excess. He describes physical symptoms ranging from headaches and indigestion to chest pains, ulcers, and allergies. Behavioral symptoms include temper outbursts and mood swings, along with insomnia, difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and others.
In summary, the individual who works in excess is at risk for both physical and mental health difficulties. In the past, there has been a tendency to assume that the company employing a work addict is benefiting from all the extra hours on the job and doing so at the expense of the individual. Can it really be more profitable to have an employee with physical ailments and subject to temper outbursts and mood swings? Increasingly, companies require collaborative work in order to be responsive to customer needs and to deal with rapid changes in markets and operating conditions. Addiction introduces dysfunctional patterns into every interpersonal dynamic involving the addict. What little gain there might be in the long hours worked by that individual could be more than offset by a ripple of distorted work team relationships.
A Focus On Addiction
The addiction perspective was translated into workplace concerns by Porter (1996) who explained the implications to a business organization by drawing direct parallels between workaholism and alcoholism as summarized here.
The chosen addictive behavior (work) will be given priority to the neglect of other life interests, just as an alcoholic will neglect family and other responsibilities to drink. This excess is unhealthy for the individual and typically causes turmoil at home with stress that can carry back into the workplace. Further, workaholics may place demands on other employees around them to adopt similar habits causing a ripple effect of further stress and unproductive interpersonal relationships.
Typically identity issues include problems of self-esteem or distorted self-concept. Whereas alcoholics may drink to feel better about themselves, workaholics are also reaching outward to obtain reinforcement of their worth. On the job, this means that they will seek situations in which they will be seen as the hero, the most (or only) responsible person who will put in the time to get the job done.
The addicted person indulges in rigid thinking. An alcoholic often places unreasonable demands on self and others and turns to a drink as a means of coping with the resulting frustrations. A workaholic is often a perfectionist, setting standards that cannot be met. Further, this individual will likely have a high need for control. In the workplace, this means controlling other people, work processes, and critical information. As frustrations mount, the workaholic creates a situation in which the only solution seems to be personal investment (as the only one, apparently, who cares enough) in more and more individual work. Work addicts are drawn to crises, and astute managers might note on closer inspection that some of these crises could have been avoided. Workaholics not only will allow these situations to develop but may also contribute to the conditions that create them. Resolving the crisis then becomes a mechanism to achieve the self-reinforcement just referenced—being the hero, doing something no one else was willing or able to do.
Addiction accelerates over time. An alcoholic will need increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired state of mind. The next morning will bring a hangover and possibly regret or embarrassment over some behavior while under the influence which triggers further need to find a way to again feel okay, and which now takes more drinking than previously. This cycle is paralleled by the workaholic who works to achieve recognition and a temporary feeling of having proven worth in the organization. The recognition—for example praise, a raise or promotion, a bigger office—brings the desired result for a short time but then loses prominence. Now there is need to accomplish something even greater to finally prove worth, and the workaholic is driven to do so.
The refusal to admit any problem exists is a standard difficulty encountered with addictions. The individual has a tendency to view the problem as one of the accuser rather than of the self. The alcoholic believes a complaining spouse is irrational; a workaholic reacts similarly. The difference is in societal support. At some point, an alcoholic’s behavior will cross that line at which the excess is criticized by most people. In contrast, society continues to support the workaholic. The employer often goes even farther by rewarding that person for workaholic behavior. For this reason, workaholism is often called the clean addiction or the socially supported addiction. These conditions make it easier for the work addict to claim that there is no real problem; it’s simply a lack of appreciation by family and friends for the importance of the work responsibilities.
A person breaking an addiction will suffer both physically and psychologically, and this holds true for a person trying to break free of work addition. Because it does not involve an ingested substance, the physical symptoms are secondary rather than direct physiological adjustments. The person addicted to work becomes accustomed to a certain level of activation—the stress of a heavy workload plus dealing with any personal relationships that may be suffering due to long hours on the job. The work has become a sole (or strongly primary) source of satisfaction, so it is also the sole focus of energy and attention. If suddenly removed from work involvement, that attention, energy, and stress response has no focus. Feelings of anxiety result. There is added stress from fear that things are no longer under control, or perhaps a worse fear—that things will be okay without the workaholic’s involvement. If a constant stream of work is required to maintain any sense of worth in the workplace, the potential that the work might be handled adequately without the workaholic would be devastating to his or her self-worth. This is the root of the high need for control on the job. If the opportunity to control the situation and continue the work is taken away, this stress and anxiety manifest into an extreme need to return to the prior state.
Extending the discussion of these points brings into view the dilemma a manager faces in determining who the better worker is. An employee who is always seen onsite—what is called “face time”—appears to be more dedicated to the job. In some cases, this might be a true assessment but, when dealing with workaholism, it is not an accurate evaluation. Another employee who consistently leaves work on time to have evenings and weekends with family might be viewed as less interested in the business. This second person, however, might be continually striving for greater efficiencies to protect that time off and actually be contributing more to organizational effectiveness. The question to ask is “Who is getting the job done most efficiently?”
Particularly in white-collar work environments, it is difficult to determine what to measure as “the job.” There are standard business metrics such as sales, production, and customer feedback. But those are summary level and do not tell the full story. Faced with ambiguity about the value of individual contributors, too many managers opt to use their general impression of who looks more involved and is always available for more involvement. This can result in rewards going to workaholic employees rather than those who work more efficiently, which can be demoralizing to those employees who see the full situation among their colleagues. Robinson (1989) explains that the work addict is focused on “quantity control but not quality control” (pp. 33, 47) and will lie if necessary to maintain control, even when telling the truth would be easier. Coworkers can see the entire dynamic and become disheartened when their efforts are considered inferior to those of a person who creates workplace difficulties through workaholic behavior.
The dysfunctional pattern is even more damaging if the manager is one who reached that position through workaholic behavior and will, therefore, perpetuate the expectation of similar involvement as a requirement to move up in the organization. Managers will sometimes talk about their own workaholic tendencies and, while they might not wish that on any of their employees, will also acknowledge that workaholic individuals are still the ones most likely to move up in the company. Their willingness to put the job ahead of anything else will be a positive consideration in deciding promotions.
In many cases, a workaholic’s performance does appear superior but, using the addiction perspective, this may be only part of the story. Exceptionally high performance often requires long hours, so organizational demands and the individual’s desire for excess work are well aligned. However, when faced with a choice between meeting those performance standards more efficiently or maintaining the long hours, the workaholic will choose more work. Just as an alcoholic cannot be definitively identified by the number of drinks consumed, a work addict cannot be identified exclusively by the number of hours worked (Porter, 1996). It is management’s task to look more closely at the reasons why a particular person is always working and whether this behavior represents a problem of desired excess rather than a conscientious approach to doing necessary work as efficiently as possible.
There will always be times when a particular project requires extraordinary involvement. Also, people starting out in new careers may need to work long hours for as much as several years in order to get established in their industry and profession. A true crisis may require full-time attention for a time. All of these are legitimate reasons to work long hours. The difference that identifies a workaholic is whether any boundaries are ever set. People with workaholic tendencies will be attracted to professions and companies that supply ever-increasing work-hour demands. Some individuals may begin with honest intentions of modifying their work intensity when the opportunity arrives but, in the meantime, have become so accustomed to the level of pressure that it is viewed as an excitement they are later unwilling to give up. A sudden drop from the accustomed level of activation causes discomfort and anxiety—workaholic withdrawal symptoms.
A number of factors have caused people to pay more attention to work excess in recent years. Before examining these factors in more detail and considering future concerns, it might be helpful to understand how people arrived at this point, especially in the United States. Excess work is recognized as a problem in many developed countries around the world. The United States stands out as one of the countries in which people work a high number of hours per week and, in contrast to many other developed nations, take fewer vacations and holidays. This demonstrates a particular work ethic—one with origins predating the establishment of the country and added to since then.
Origins Of The American Work Ethic
Generally speaking, a work ethic is the manifestation of personally held values, and every culture has a unique history and set of conditions that influence the meaning given to work in people’s lives. The predominant work ethic in the United States grew from the experience of European settlers who came here with hopes of making a better life than was available to them in the home country they left behind.
On arrival, the early settlers found extremely primitive conditions and unimagined hardship. Mere survival was a full-time endeavor. Without an option to simply jump on the next boat to return when things got rough, it’s no wonder they so dearly held onto the belief that their trials were part of something very important. At the time, their quest for a better life was often tied to pursuit of religious freedom. This contributed to the settlers’ belief that they were destined to set up a community that would serve as a model for Christian societies elsewhere. While most saw the new land as an opportunity to give individuals more freedom, many also viewed it as a new opportunity for broader humankind. The combination provided strong motivation not only to survive, but also to continue pursuit of their vision for society.
As a matter of necessity, the settlers relied on each person to do his or her share of the work. They believed that everyone had to work hard and each, in turn, should enjoy the benefits of their work. Their new community could not tolerate an aristocracy as they had experienced in Europe, where those born to wealth lived off the work of others. Self-sufficiency was imperative, along with a willingness to work cooperatively to create an infrastructure for shared benefit.
Over time, religious customs progressively embraced the value of creating wealth, which allowed people to enjoy greater benefits of their efforts with less guilt. Eventually, work ethic was described less in religious terms and more as a combination of virtues necessary for development. Ben Franklin was a prolific writer and one of great influence during colonial times. Particularly in his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, he popularized the virtues of hard work, pride in work and a job well done, as well as frugality, industry, justice, chastity, humility, and resolution. He did not mention religion but, rather, stressed these as essential qualities for building the new nation of the United States.
Still, Max Weber (1930) coined the phrase “Protestant Work Ethic” to describe what he witnessed in America. This phrase acknowledged both the underlying religious connection among the people and the implementation of these values displayed in how the people worked. This phrase is still used by many to describe the work ethic in the United States. Specifically, Weber referred to the economic system of capitalism as connected to ascetic Protestantism. The term “ascetic” refers to the willingness to sacrifice and work hard in the present to gain rewards in the future. In the religious sense, it would be giving up comforts now to earn a place in heaven. In the development of the country, it adapted to mean the willingness to invest very hard work to create a system that would be better in the future, particularly for one’s children and generations to follow.
Industrialization brought rapid growth of factories in the late 19th century and many changes to the relationship between individuals and their work. People in mass-production jobs began to lose their sense of working at a craft while, at the same time, they gained access to more goods. Work was less tied to personal expression, increasingly measured by the clock, and considered an exchange transaction. Still, people continued to work hard. The American Dream of each generation achieving a better standard of living took hold. Wage earners worked to enjoy their share of the readily available mass-produced goods and to provide even greater opportunities for their children through education and lifestyle improvements.
During all this development, popular stories by Horatio Alger and other authors emphasized the theme of individuals rising from rags to riches. The main character would always begin from a disadvantaged position but, through hard work and perseverance, would reach success. This fostered the belief in America being a “land of opportunity” in which anyone willing to put in the effort deserved to achieve a higher social position and material wealth. An unfortunate side effect was the implication that people who do not improve their standing must be deficient in either ability or ambition to not have capitalized on that opportunity. These stories suggested an obligation to improve one’s situation regardless of the starting point.
Pursuing constant improvement leads to a cycle of an ever-increasing need to work. A book called The Overworked American (Schor, 1993) explained the acceleration in this way: People work hard to have more things, but then they also feel the need to buy more to provide relief from their intense work schedules, and buying more results in needing to work even more. In other words, people with high-pressure work schedules want elaborate vacations and gym memberships as an offset; they feel they “deserve” expensive clothing or a fancy car because they work so hard. Then, they have to work even more to support those indulgences. Twenty to thirty years ago, families began to realize that having both parents in the workforce helped them not only pay the bills but also have more of the extras. Now the lifestyle standard has moved up to where two-income families are a necessity for having the “average” home, cars, and vacations. Purchases that were previously luxury items—multiple televisions, second and third cars, dining in restaurants rather than cooking at home—have become basics to many households.
The image of the “good provider” reinforced the belief that working more had a positive purpose. Traditionally, the man of the household worked to provide for his wife and children. Society has supported the idea that to work more is, therefore, a sign of that breadwinner’s devotion to providing a better life for those dependent on him. Should his wife complain about hours on the job, she would be going up against both the company (likely rewarding the behavior) and social messages that say her criticism is unfair. For a workaholic, the complaining spouse may be a stressor but often not enough to overcome his excessive work habits. It may even fuel the perception of having sole responsibility for safeguarding family security and a corresponding need to work even harder.
As more women entered the workforce, it created new opportunities to justify excess work. For men, the resulting increase in the number of people competing for job and promotions could be used to justify working more. Of course, there is some reality to that assessment of more competition, but it also, conveniently, provided one more excuse for those rationalizing their excess. Women trying to prove themselves by advancing professionally faced the hurdles of overcoming bias and gaining recognition for what they had to offer. A female workaholic could easily turn to her complaining spouse with the explanation that he does not understand what it takes for a woman in business to succeed. Of course, women did not just become workaholics when they entered the corporate environment. Those favoring excess work previously indulged that tendency in social commitments around their children’s schools, community development, entertaining that supported their husband’s careers, and other activities. They functioned as workaholics across multiple involvements. Now, in the same environment as the male work addicts, their behavior is more recognizable as the same phenomenon.
Another social shift pertains to the asceticism just explained in reference to Weber’s (1930) writing. As the opportunity for credit buying became more common, many people chose not to work hard today for what they might have in the future. Rather, they would use credit to purchase goods and services desired today and later work hard to pay those bills. The sequencing of the exchange reversed, but the requirement for hard work to support those purchases continued.
In today’s workplace, there are remnants from each stage of history. Work is still considered to be honorable and people still believe America is a place where individuals can (and should?) advance their own socioeconomic status and pass on a better start to their children. Competition for jobs and promotion has become more intense in many fields as work is outsourced to other countries. Combined with very real external demands, the belief that work is good easily slides into an assumption that more work is always better.
Excess Work In Today’s Business Environment
Americans have increased the number of hours they work in the past 20 to 30 years, precisely the time frame one might hope would have offered increased leisure. Americans have been noted to work more hours each year than Japanese, British, or German workers and on average do not use the paid time off they have available to them.
As clarified in Burke’s (2000) summary, neither researchers nor popular press authors agree on the exact definition of workaholism or how to best measure whether and to what extent it exists in the workplace. Some authors disagree with the characterization of workaholism as work addiction, preferring instead to call everyone working long hours a workaholic and distinguishing that some of those individuals are very happy and productive in that situation. There is, however, some consensus that excess work— whether called work addiction or something else—can be a problem, and this extends to a number of developed countries. The above historic highlights for the United States explain a cultural tendency to value hard work. This should not be taken to mean that it is nonexistent or less of a problem in other countries. A quick Internet search reveals that Germans write about arbeitssucht, which translates to work mania or work craze. In Japan, widows have success-fully sued companies for their spouses’ karoshi or death by overwork. Articles and books have appeared in areas as separated as the Czech Republic and Brazil in the last decade. All of this indicates that there is something here of substance and worthy of further investigation.
Excessive work is contrary to the potential for personal benefit in discussions of work/life balance. A company is referred to as “family friendly” when policies and practices include benefits like extended parental leave, flextime, and corporate child-care programs, along with a general culture that values family life and believes in supporting more balanced lives (Andreassi & Thompson, 2004). Having policies is one important step; following through with actual practice is another. Companies that do maintain family-friendly practices and an organizational culture that supports balance between work and family life may do so for different reasons. It may be that the founder or leader of the company supports these values and ensures that consistent messages are carried throughout the employee ranks. A company may also strive to be the preferred place of employment for the best employees. Unfortunately, many companies have policies in place that employees do not utilize, because the organizational culture dictates that face time and overtime are the true values (Andreassi & Thompson, 2004).
On the one hand, there seems to be greater recognition that policies supporting work/life balance are a good idea. On the other hand, actual practices might fall short due to the engrained habits that have evolved as the prevalent work culture. These opposing forces shift in balance from time to time. Following the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there was a great deal of reflection about what is truly important in life. Some predicted there would be more attention given to life outside the workplace. That emphasis seems to have been short lived. In subsequent years of economic difficulty, global competition, and job losses due to redundancies after mergers, fears about career stability and job retention have overshadowed the magnitude of loss experienced on 9-11.
With so much pressure to work long hours, is it realistic to say that some people would continue to do so even if those pressures were removed? The work addiction view answers that question as “yes” and suggests that the existing work addicts or workaholics in the organization are helping to perpetuate the belief that more work is always better.
Help From Advancing Technology
Technology has allowed for new products that have sometimes been called “labor-saving devices.” Past generations wondered what women would have left to do in their homes when washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and later, microwave ovens relieved the burden of previously time-consuming household tasks. In factories, there was fear that robotics would displace so many workers as to cause economic disaster. More recently, our ability to do more things and do things faster has accelerated. Document handling has changed with the introduction of fax machines and high-speed copiers. Computers and the Internet have put tremendous amounts of information at everyone’s fingertips. Cell phones have allowed easy contact while away from work. Handheld devices now provide features of both phone and computer and are so compact in size that one can slip them into a pocket or wear them clipped to a belt.
All of this allows new freedom for people to move about and does make it easier to leave the workplace and still cover necessary messages, research, and scheduling. However, does the ability to stay in touch 24/7 equate to a requirement that one do so? Technology itself can be addictive. Many people have experienced losing track of time playing a computerized video game. Many have stayed up later at night than intended, engrossed in surfing the Web. As isolated events, these things may not be a problem. When it becomes habitual, and everything else is arranged around the use of the technology, the person might be identified as a “techno-addict” or one subject to “techno-philia” (Kakabadse, Kouzmin, & Kakabadse, 2000).
With some people vulnerable to becoming addicted to work and others vulnerable to technology addiction, the intersection of the two would seem to be a dangerous combination. Work addicts can use the technology to more conveniently indulge; tech addicts can use work as an excuse to justify their need to stay connected at all times and in all places. These are mutually reinforcing patterns. The resulting behavior does not always seem so logical to those who do not share in the addiction. Unfortunately, technology has progressed faster than social norms about what is appropriate. Consider these examples:
- A guest is in the home of a friend to watch the football playoff game on a Sunday afternoon. Every 20 minutes or so he pulls out a handheld device and checks his e-mail. It’s Sunday! How many people are likely to be sending him messages that are so critical they cannot wait until Monday morning or at least until later that evening when he’s no longer at a social gathering? A few people may have critical jobs that require this type of monitoring, but not many. Why is this behavior not considered out of place or an insult to his friend as host of the gathering?
- A man drives up to the front of a church on Sunday morning, letting his wife and children go inside while he parks the car. When he enters the church, he stays in a back pew rather than joining them farther up. At the end of the service, they find he has been back there working on his laptop computer. How much benefit came from that time on the computer to balance against the turmoil between him and his wife after it is discovered why he did not sit with the family?
- A woman supervisor at a bank always wears a wireless earpiece to maintain connection to her cell phone, even during meetings and lunches with friends. She keeps the phone on silent mode and typically waits to check later to see who has called, but she simply is not comfortable removing the device from her ear. Why is it so uncomfortable to feel physically separated from that piece of technology?
- A woman is asked by her husband to “just this once” not take her handheld device along on vacation. She convinces him that it will bring her comfort to have it in along in case of an emergency, but she will not use it otherwise. Then, she gets up very early every morning and sneaks it into the hotel bathroom with her to check e-mail while he is still sleeping. What are the chances she received something in that e-mail that really justified lying to her spouse and sneaking around to use the technology that she had promised to set aside?
When 30% of the people in a restaurant are using some type of electronic device, they probably are not all addicted to either technology or the work they may be using it for. Are the others just being rude? Opinions on that might differ. Society has not yet defined the etiquette for appropriate use in public places. When some of those people continue to talk on the phone or check their e-mail while driving their car after they leave the restaurant, there is a deeper question of safety for their passengers, other drivers, and the public at large. In both situations, are people giving due consideration to their own true priorities? Once norms evolve on use of technology, it will become easier to spot those who are compelled toward excess. However, dealing with the problem of excess requires that someone identify that difference with
thought as to why it should be addressed and how that might be done. This is equally true whether the excess is a drive to use technology or to work constantly, and it is especially true regarding the combination of the two.
Who Is Responsible; What Should Be Done?
Addictive behaviors can be learned at a young age and tracked from one generation to the next because childhood survival behavior often evolves into adult dependencies (Robinson, 1989). When this is the case, a person’s workaholic tendencies exist before entering the workplace; the current job is simply today’s time and place for the behavior that would occur whenever and wherever that person might be working. Is it the employer’s responsibility to change that? There is no doubt that individuals are fundamentally responsible for their own behavior. The employer’s responsibility might seem more clear-cut if the job requires this type of excessive behavior and, therefore, seems to pressure people toward work addiction over time. Then we might instinctively turn to the employers as having some responsibility for correcting a situation that they have created. Is there a practical difference between the two possibilities?
When focusing on business consequences, the origin of the problem becomes less important. The previous discussion has emphasized that workaholics are not a company’s best asset. By surface appearances, work addiction might be mistaken for dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to always go the extra mile to accomplish goals and make sure standards are upheld. However, the dedication is directed toward making sure that there is always more work than can be completed; apparent perseverance is simply indulging the addiction while garnering societal support; accomplishment of goals and high standards may be real but might also have been accomplished more efficiently and with less turmoil for other involved employees. The company is, of course, concerned with outcomes, but this is no longer enough. The competitive environment today requires that those outcomes be achieved as efficiently as possible. Time at work is not the same as productivity, but even productivity is not enough when there is a possibility that the same level of output could be achieved more effectively than with current processes.
A manager functions as agent for the company in dealing directly with both the targeted outcomes and related employee issues. The easy road is to assume that the employees who are constantly at work are the most valuable. A more difficult task is to monitor both the end result and the process used to arrive there. It is easy to credit an employee with being available and in contact any time of day or night; more difficult to evaluate how many of those odd-hour contacts truly carry any urgency, or how many urgent situations could have been avoided. Management training should include information to assist in making this transition. Better understanding of work addiction will help, but concrete suggestions are also needed.
Consolidating from several prior authors, the Burke (2000) article covers a number of possible actions for changing the culture of the organizations away from work excess and encouraging individual behaviors to support that change. Main points follow, with some interpretative comments added:
- Identify and track the costs of imbalance to provide motivation for change and continually remind everyone why it is important to continue pursuing that change. Stress levels and unproductive conflict might be a start; employees would be a good source of input on situations and measures to monitor.
- Create policies that support balance so that people have relief from their work involvements, whether that be time with family, community activities, or other leisure pursuits. These policies should be grounded by leadership support, including the expectation that people actually use the policies.
- Contain meetings within the regular workday times. Setting key meetings outside that time forces people to arrive early or stay late. Keeping them within the standard workday is a clear communication that employees are expected to have other commitments beyond that time and the company will not routinely interfere with those commitments.
- Require employees to take their vacation days and do not allow them to work on holidays. Any options for carry-over or pay in lieu of vacation time should be carefully controlled, used only in situations where it will benefit the employee in a short-term situation but not repeatedly applied.
- Encourage people to go home rather than work late. Encouraging this may be as simple as making it visible that the boss goes home and tells people to do the same. A special circumstance might require extra effort for a limited time. Indications that someone is consistently staying on the job would be reason for discussion about work distribution and new goal setting. If a complete workgroup or department is staying late, individuals may feel that they have to match that behavior. Groups can gradually slide into this longer workday norm unless they receive ongoing, consistent communication that it is not viewed favorably.
- Talk to employees about how their time on the job might be more productive—whether they are having general time-management problems, having difficulty prioritizing activities, or struggling to secure uninterrupted time for better concentration.
These suggestions are based on the stated assumptions that employees will be more effective in their work, overall, when their lives include time and attention to sources of satisfaction outside the workplace. People who are working long hours due to external pressure are likely to gravitate toward changes such as these as soon as they are convinced it is a message truly supported by their employer. Those who resist such changes—who continue to spend excessive time on the job—are the people working that way from an inner drive to maintain work activity with or without external demands. Those people will strongly resist efforts to have more work/life balance. For example, they will not use their vacation time, will not stay home even when they are ill, and they will ignore or even sabotage policies that would allow other benefits like flextime or telecommuting. In other words, they seem determined to stay at work as much as possible.
Further verification of a problem might be found by noticing supervisory staff who are unable to effectively delegate work, because work addicts prefer to do twice as much themselves rather than alleviate the workload. They might assign a task, repeatedly change requirements, or set impossibly high expectations and, finally, take the work back and finish it through added independent work. This inhibits the development of other employees, in addition to causing anxiety and low morale. Workaholics who are not in a position to delegate are, similarly, poor at the interdependency required in collaborative work. Teamwork interferes with their control of information, people, and processes. This works against the shift of many organizations today toward more collaboration and team-based work structures.
As policies and practices change to favor work-life balance, differences among employees would become more obvious. A manager then can investigate whether the person who seems compelled to work in any circumstances is a center for less-productive routines and troublesome interpersonal relations with other workers. This deeper investigation of the issue rarely happens. Most managers are very busy, do not understand the problem, and have never been educated on a better way to assess employees’ work patterns. There is little recognition that those highly productive employees might be making their numbers while also causing unnecessary turmoil in the workplace. Confronting them is difficult for the manager, particularly if the same behavior has been the basis of past rewards and promotions. One manager alone will have a tough time combating work-aholism if the larger organizational culture supports it.
The overall scenario might seem unpromising. The generation to generation replication of addictive behavior means it is not a problem likely to go away on its own. Technology is potentially compounding the number of workers involved in excessive work. Increasing demands of the workplace—both for more hours involved in work and for use of technology to stay connected—may be encouraging the formation of workaholic behavior patterns. One might think it futile to tackle the concern of excessive work and honestly question whether there are not more pressing issues deserving of managers’ attention.
Offsetting this pessimistic view are more promising signs. The February 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review contains its list of Breakthrough Ideas for the upcoming year. Number seven on the list, and in the category of “people management,” is the item Living with Continuous Partial Attention, a condition in which one is “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing” (Stone, 2007, p. 28). In contrast to multitasking, which often combines tasks that require only limited attention, continuous partial attention is more taxing, and focus seems to deteriorate in the face of this constant barrage of incoming information. The concluding breakthrough idea in this article was that companies will be able to differentiate themselves both with customers and employees by offering “discriminating choices and quality of life” (Stone, 2007, p. 29).
This is one example of the growing attention to need for change and, again, the type of change that when done successfully will increase the visibility of work addiction and resulting difficulties in the workplace. Stone reports this attention to offering relief from continuous partial attention as being driven by backlash from employees and customers. If this is true, the push toward excessive work may have reached its tipping point and trends will, indeed, shift. Companies astute enough to recognize the validity of this shift and take action toward moderation will be able to gain competitive advantage by avoiding, or at least diminishing, the negative business consequences of excessive work.
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