Can workaholism ever be a good thing?

Do you work more than 40 hours a week? Do you answer your work emails at the weekend / in the evening / on holiday? Do you think about your work constantly?

Are you a workaholic?

Addictions are, by nature, negative. The question that we should ask, then, is whether workaholism can ever be positive, and research during the past 30 years hasn’t reached a conclusive decision.

For some, working a 50-hour week is the norm but for others, it constitutes long hours. If we consider that average working hours in the UK are 39.2 hours per week, in line with the OECD average, habitually working upwards of 50 hours per week may be a sign that you are addicted to work.

Because that is what workaholism really is: an addiction, not a colloquial status symbol. And yet, in our culture we have a tendency to revere a work ethic that emphasises working longer and harder than anyone else, even if it means that your work encroaches on your personal life – your family, your hobbies and your relaxation time.

Sure, perhaps you choose to work more than the average because you love what you do, but it’s sometimes difficult to separate this from a compulsion to work.

It isn’t surprising that some recent research found a positive relationship between workaholism and job demands. It feels good to work, so workaholics often complicate their jobs unnecessarily. Working long hours because you feel compelled to do so is a vicious cycle – it feeds the addiction.

Moreover, working too much can actually be detrimental to productivity; so even if you stay at your desk long after everyone has gone home, it’s likely that your tasks will take much longer than if you’re relaxed and fresh. If your health is being affected by your work habits and you feel guilty about taking time away from work, it’s clearly a case of ‘bad’ workaholism.

workaholic

 

‘Good’ workaholism could be defined as working longer hours because you’re engaged with your work – because you’re interested in it and passionate about it. And working long hours doesn’t have to be inherently negative – I was once told by a highly-respected senior professor that she typically worked between 50 to 60 hours per week. Why? Because she felt connected to her work. In other words, she was so deeply engaged with her field of research that she chose to spend more hours of her time doing things related to her subject.

In this case, perhaps we should differentiate between ‘workaholics’ and ‘work enthusiasts’ instead of ‘good workaholism’, which tries to put a positive moniker on a term with an inherently negative meaning.

However, we know that productivity levels tend to worsen in correlation with long hours. Even if we decide that the professor is a ‘work enthusiast’ rather than a ‘workaholic’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this example is wholly positive. There is a difference between addiction and choice, but what if the effects are similar in the long run?

Arguably, the difference lies with engagement: workaholics struggle to disengage from work, but enthusiasts can work longer hours than average whilst maintaining a generally healthy relationship with their work, recognising when they need to take a break / slow down.

There is no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ workaholism – work engagement and addiction to work should be treated separately, not as two sides of the same coin.

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Posted on 9th October 2015 in Insight
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