Employees who bust their guts to take on additional tasks and work gruelling hours may be lauded for their commitment and ambition, but their addiction to work is likely damaging themselves, and their workplace.
“Don’t you clock off at 3pm and head to the beach?”
Back in the pre-COVID-19 days when international travel was still on the cards, I was often fielding this curious question from non-Australians – many of whom deem the Australian work culture to be a full-time schedule of sun, sand and surf, with a side hobby of work.
Our relaxed culture and easy access to natural expanses – often located in close proximity to bustling CBDs – are perceived to create the ideal work/life balance.
Even in 2018, a survey from Expedia interviewing more than 11,000 workers across 19 countries revealed that Australia has the third worst case of employees not taking annual leave – behind Japan and Italy.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, the Centre for Future Work and the Australia Institute found that people worked 5.3 hours of unpaid work per week in 2020, an increase from 4.6 in 2019.
As an organisational psychologist helping individuals who are at risk of, or experiencing emotional exhaustion, Amanda Ferguson has gained extensive insight into work addiction.
“We knew before the pandemic there was a burn and churn culture in the corporate world that was increasing,” says Ferguson.
“People are now saying, ‘I may as well do an extra bit of work here or there’; it’s blurring the boundaries between home and work …The work home boundaries were a bit of a safety mechanism in helping people to manage overwork or burnout so they could clock on and clock off, they could debrief when they were commuting between places.”
With flexible/virtual working arrangements now common among most corporate workplaces, identifying the tell-tale signs of work addiction has become trickier, but there are plenty of solutions HR can implement to help employees.
Spotting the signs
A study published in 2020 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of 187 workers in France, from a range of occupations and demographics, found that heavy work demands, and people in high-level leadership roles with significant responsibilities were risk factors for work addiction.
Working longer hours than required, having an obsessive approach to work, and being a woman also amplified the likelihood of work addiction ensuing.
“We repair away from work, not at work … The organisation must get the worker away to recharge.” – Amanda Ferguson, organisational psychologist
Adding some underlying factors into the equation, Ferguson says that “perfectionism, low self-esteem, or other underlying traits that continue to play out in the workplace [often] from childhood” also predispose an employee to work addiction.
“Often, an employee is trying to prove something, or wanting to avoid their personal life.
“HR can implement stress management [and] work/life balance management, but is there another reason for it? I will often help people with burn out, then they fix it, but they go and burn out again.”
It’s worth assessing the work environment to see if there are any organisational elements contributing to employee burnout because, as HRM has reported before, that’s often one of the most influential factors.
“It’s any situation where people have a lot of demand on them, and not enough resources,” says Ferguson.
Aside from the potential negative effects of work addiction on employees – including exhaustion, burnout, relationship troubles and cardiovascular problems – it remains in the company’s best interests to keep a lid on hours overworked.
“Burnt-out employees are exhausted, cynical and not as efficient or effective as they would otherwise be,” says Ferguson.
Helping an overworker
Often, it’s the simple solutions that count: encouraging employees to take lunch breaks, granting time off in lieu if they have worked overtime to meet a demanding deadline, and ensuring excessive leave isn’t accrued.
“Empowering a worker to push back on a workplace is [important], or putting a buddy system or support system in place – processes that enable them to feel empowered, protected and safe enough to do that,” says Ferguson.
“The rate of burnout is exacerbated because of COVID … I keep hearing from a lot of people, especially high-level corporates and executives, that they used to leave the country to recharge and now they can’t do that.”
In this situation, Ferguson advises zeroing in on the aspects of overseas travel that aided their recuperation, and then, considering ways to creatively recreate those aspects at home. If the lack of internet was a drawcard, for example, replicate this by going off grid, proposes Ferguson.
For employees missing the buzz that comes with attending a large-scale networking event, reaching out to work contacts for a more informal catch up is another worthy option.
These distancing strategies may grant workers the mental and physical space to temporarily separate themselves from the overemphasis on productivity, drive and success – traits which have frequently come to characterise industrialised societies, as noted in an article published in The Conversation.
While achievement and ambition are admirable virtues to strive for, when untempered by a healthy dose of self-care and emotional recuperation, they can fuel a propensity to work relentlessly long hours.
Attempting to mitigate this problem, Ferguson notes that professional and personal development should encompass far more than traditional work values.
“HR can encourage workers to get to know, understand and develop themselves as part of their learning and development … and [to help them understand] how they can improve their empowerment and interactions with more senior staff,” she says.
Bringing in-house solutions into question
While the enticing offer of corporate massages, free food and employee entertainment might seem like a great workplace perk, it likely isn’t aiding an employee’s recuperation from work.
“We repair away from work, not at work,” says Ferguson. “The organisation must get the worker away to recharge.”
Regardless of the kind of emotional recuperation, she advises the most effective way to bring about cultural change is to provide employees with essential resources, such as administrative and technological support, rather than workplace perks.
“Foster self-regulation and recovery from work,” she says.
Ferguson adds that HR professionals and leaders should encourage their employees to “rest, sleep, play, socialise with family and friends, [engage] in hobbies, and [hang] out in nature”.
To understand how work addiction could be connected to a mental health issue, register for AHRI’s short course on Mental Health at Work.