Managers need to spot when initiatives to improve employee engagement are pushing staff into workaholic behaviour, writes Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane

An escalating tension exists for managers in balancing the pressures for productivity and innovation with the need to promote a positive working environment for their employees. Often these two goals can seem counterintuitive.

In light of emerging evidence highlighting the adverse health effects of long working hours – such as sleeping problems and risk of stroke – several organisations, such as JPMorgan and Volkswagen, have introduced policies to deter employees from working beyond their contractual hours or answering emails at weekends.

However, many corporate cultures continue to encourage employees to blend their personal and working worlds through onsite sports facilities, the availability of free food and flexible teleworking arrangements. Some even advocate the importance of their ‘hard-working culture’ through their role model CEOs like Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer, who rise before the sun every day to fit in a day’s work before lunch.

Approximately 10 per cent of the US working population have been found to have issues relating to work addiction, with a higher prevalence among professional groups. This form of addiction can be a costly problem for companies, not only because of the expenses associated with declining workforce health, but also because of its impact on employee performance. Although workaholics might reach short-term quantitative performance targets, managers tend to overlook the fact that they are not good team players because they are less likely to trust their co-workers and more likely to compete against them than support them.

Although such addiction can be attributed to personality differences, the working environment plays a large role in fuelling an addict’s compulsion to work beyond their natural capacity. For the last decade, organisations have invested heavily in employee engagement initiatives to encourage workers to go that ‘extra mile’ in their job.

But many have failed to consider that, unless their employees derive some enjoyment or meaning from their work, such additional efforts lead to burnout, work-life conflict, and decreased physical and mental health – at great expense to both parties. What is also largely ignored by management practice is that the excessive behaviours of a workaholic or a ‘reluctant hardworker’ are fostered and reinforced by their supervisors' support or encouragement of behaviours such as as working long hours or answering emails from home or holidays. Organisations that therefore value and promote working long hours and people’s willingness to sacrifice their personal life to advance their career could be creating a breeding ground for workaholism.

The good news is that there are a number of tell-tale differentiators that can help managers recognise who is engaged in their work, and who is addicted to work. First, invite managers to reflect on their own approach to work before looking at their team. Some key differences between engaged and addictive behaviour at work include:

  • Source of motivation: engaged employees are motivated by the enjoyment of their work tasks, while work addicts are driven by the guilt of not working. They experience a positive ‘rush’ or ‘high’ while working as the guilt is alleviated.

  • Need for recognition: workaholics are more sensitised to status, peer admiration and manager approval than their engaged counterparts. Such standards typically stem from low self-worth and insecurity, which fuels their fear of disapproval and need to prove themselves to others.

  • Relationships with others: because workaholics are more likely to see their peers as competition, they are more likely to bully others in the form of criticising or sabotaging colleagues’ work. Engaged employees are better citizens of the organisation and are more likely to support or mentor their colleagues.

  • Focus of efforts: because workaholics are more sensitive to peer admiration and status, they will concentrate their efforts on the tasks that will be recognised by their colleagues and increase their chances of a promotion or pay rise. Engaged employees, on the other hand, will concentrate their efforts on tasks that they enjoy most and that give them a sense of meaning or purpose – even if they are not necessary to get a promotion or pay rise.

Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane is assistant professor in HRM and organisational behaviour at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin