Worried you might have a workaholic on your hands? A wellbeing expert shares tips to identify and combat work addiction in order to create more sustainable working environments.
Between 12 and 15 per cent of the employed population suffers from work addiction – an uncontrollable inner compulsion to work excessively hard, says Audrey McGibbon, a chartered occupational psychologist and co-founder of EEK & SENSE.
“The legal profession, finance, health service sectors and those working as entrepreneurs have particularly pronounced levels of work addiction. They’ve been identified at around 25 per cent,” she says.
McGibbon’s data is drawn from statistics published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and academic papers cited during her doctorate studies.
The question HR leaders need to ask, she says, is not just, “What can we do to look out for this?” but, “What is our obligation to prevent this from happening?”
Last year, Safe Work Australia introduced a model Code of Practice called Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work, expanding the guidance on risks of harm at work from purely physical to psychosocial for the first time. There’s now more of an onus on employers to address problematic levels of work addiction, especially in at-risk industries.
“Those working in HR can’t afford not to know this stuff,” says McGibbon. “We’re constantly talking about burnout, but burnout is the outcome of unmanaged chronic work-related stress, and work addiction often underpins both stress and burnout. If we’re measuring burnout, it’s already too late.”
As well as belonging to certain industries, there are certain personality traits, such as extroversion, that make people more prone to work addiction, says McGibbon.
“Extroverts often crave validation from others, thrive on social interactions and need engagement and recognition, so they’re driven to get these things and are more likely to overcommit and not have good boundaries.”
Research also shows, unsurprisingly, that people who identify as perfectionists and those who struggle to delegate are also at risk.
People’s mood tendencies also contribute, she says – for example, people who have a more pessimistic disposition or are self-critical or critical of others are more at risk.
“When you give people a manager who is a joy to work with, a work addict really wants to keep them happy… having a high level of control and a close supervisory relationship can heighten the risk.” – Audrey McGibbon, chartered occupational psychologist and co-founder of EEK & SENSE
In addition to recognising individual risk factors, HR managers and leaders should be aware of the culture people are operating in.
“Is it an environment where there’s a high workload? Are they working within really short deadlines? Is it an environment where hard work and long hours are rewarded? These factors immediately heighten the risk, so that’s where an HR manager should be on high alert.”
HR also needs to pay attention to the type of leadership people are exposed to, says McGibbon.
Often, we think of toxic leadership as being a catalyst of these types of concerning wellbeing risks. While that’s often true, you also need to be wary of the “really lovely and supportive boss”.
“When you give people a manager who is a joy to work with, a work addict really wants to keep them happy. And what often comes with a lovely manager is lots of autonomy. But in a high-risk environment, having a high level of control and a close supervisory relationship can heighten the risk.”
These people have a high need to please and a high fear of failure, she adds.
“Autonomy is being cast in the psychosocial health management space as the panacea of all ails, but if you give too much autonomy to perfectionistic, self-critical, highly motivated extroverts, you could be in trouble.”
Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner, agrees. At AHRI’s National Convention in August, he said the typical approach HR leaders and managers have taken is to empower high-performing employees to take ownership of their own performance.
“But we learned from the pandemic that too much autonomy can be damaging,” says McEwan. “When we remove the guardrails and just let people go, particularly in a performance context, sometimes they don’t know when to stop.”
Gartner research showed 57 per cent of respondents believe that high performers don’t need guidance on how to work.
“Many of us have this inbuilt belief that high performers know what they’re doing and we’re best to just get out of their way,” he says.
It’s time to stop glorifying busyness
One of the most common things you’ll hear when raising your concerns with a work addict is that they don’t mind the workload. They might say, “This is just how I like to work.”
“This mirrors the language of addiction,” says McGibbon. “Everyone else knows they have a problem, but they can’t see it themselves.”
It’s often challenging to bring up, as we tend to talk about work addiction in a flippant manner. We palm it off as ‘caring too much’ or being ‘too dedicated’ to our work. But McGibbon says work addiction should be taken seriously.
“A lot of bosses will still say stuff like, ‘I’ve got this woman who’s a bit of a workaholic, and it’s great because I know I can always get her at short notice and always get what I need.’”
Not only is that bad for the individual’s health, it’s also bad for the company.
Read HRM’s article: Leaders: stop saying you’re ‘so busy’ all the time.
McGibbon cites a study which suggests that the most effective managers and leaders work an average of 52 hours a week, and those exceeding 70 hours are rated as less effective. And that’s not all. Those at 55+ hours are more at risk of work addiction.
“There’s another study that clearly links high levels of workaholism to lower levels of business growth and performance,” she says.
“The messaging should be, ‘We want you to do a good job and to have commitment, but we don’t want dedicated slaves.’”
She hopes to help employers have these important conversations by conducting a wide-scale study in 2024 with industry and academic partners that will assess work addiction in Australia.
What’s the solution?
Pre-pandemic, only 15-20 per cent of organisations had a wellbeing strategy, according to Gartner. In 2023, that has jumped to 87 per cent. Yet over a third of employees now feel exhausted, he says.
“The problem is, our employees aren’t using the programs we’ve spent all this money developing,” says McEwan. “Why? Well, it could be because we’re asking people to attend these ‘wellness sessions’ during their lunch breaks. We make these things an addition to people’s existing workloads.
“When we try to encourage wellness, ironically, we end up creating more fatigue.”
Baking wellbeing into your workflow looks like asking questions such as, “Does this approach put any additional pressure on employees?” and “Are we appropriately resourced to take on this project?”
McGibbon says one of the best ways to keep an eye out for signs of overworking and work addiction is to treat it as you would any other type of addiction – about which she says there are six factors:
- Salience – Preoccupied, motivated and willing to expend intense energy and time on work.
- Tolerance – Work hours creep up over time, they feel a sense of guilt for signing off on time and are irritated if forced to
stop work by others.
- Mood change – Once they get into their work, their mood shifts. Perhaps they feel more settled, focused or energised, which can be risky if they can’t get this feeling from other aspects of life.
- Conflicts in other parts of life – Work interferes with or prevents engagement in almost every other part of life, such as missing family time or dinners and cancelling social plans.
- Withdrawal – When on annual leave or at weekends/in the evenings, they can’t stop responding to emails or working on a project.
- Relapse – The best way to treat addiction is abstinence, but not all professionals would have the opportunity or leave balance to take extended time off work to recover.
She also notes that, as with other addictions, people tend to build up a tolerance level, so they have to do/get more and more to feed their addiction. You might notice an employee has started to normalise working until 8pm each night because a ‘big day’ for them would mean working into the early hours of the morning, for example.
McGibbon suggests employers engage in training around awareness of work addiction, as part of existing wellbeing or psychosocial safety training, to help managers understand who might be susceptible.
“Lots of people work long hours. That doesn’t make them work addicts. What makes you a work addict is that you can’t stop working long hours when there’s no justification to do it.
“[We know from] many studies that people who have a compulsive drive to keep working are more prone to poor sleep, depression, heart disease and lower life satisfaction, and more likely to get a divorce. And the kicker is that you can’t say it was all worth it, because the data suggests you’re viewed as a worse performer in the long run.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Oct/November 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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