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Pathological personalities likely to become work addicts

Author  :  Xu Changjiang,Xie Xiaolong     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-11-26

Driven by increasingly fierce competition in the business world, many people are finding themselves spending more and more time and energy at work. Moreover, advanced network techniques and online telecommuting have enabled people to work anytime and anywhere, further blurring the boundary between work and life. As a result, a growing number of people work extreme amounts of overtime, and Karoshi, a Japanese term for “death from overwork” is no longer a shocking phenomenon. Given this environment, work addiction has become a hot topic for academic research.

Though they hold different views about the features and reasons for work addiction, researchers agree on the bad influence it can have on people, their families and organizations. Extended periods of overwork can cause stress, unhappiness and deteriorated mental health. It can even break apart families and interfere with social life.

Because workaholics tend to be stubborn and perfectionists, they usually believe that their own ways are best and are often uncooperative with colleagues, whom they regard as inferior, creating tension in the workplace. Consequently, workaholics are not efficient and productive in terms of performance.

However, an excessive indulgence in work does not carry the same stigma as addiction to drugs or gambling, so there is not as much backlash against work addiction relative to other compulsive behaviors. Moreover, workaholics are less aware of their own problems, and as a result, they are not as inclined to seek treatment and help, which impedes efforts to control and intervene in the problem.

Over engagement in work

Long hours in the office do not equate to work addiction, but overwork is usually the primary symptom. American psychologist Wayne Edward Oates defines the disorder as an uncontrollable need to keep working. According to the theories of Spence and Robbins, workaholics are characterized by over work engagement. They work for a long time under a certain drive but are unable to enjoy the process.

Furthermore, some researchers pointed out three specific characteristics: Workaholics spend a large amount of time on work. They constantly think about work even in off hours and work more than is required to meet their own financial needs or the needs of their organizations.

In fact, the third trait is a result of the first two traits. Workaholics are not driven by external incentives but by an internal force. As Ng, Sorensen and Feldman said, the sacrifice of other important things in life and the irresistible drive are the two key aspects of addiction.

Wilmar Schaufeli, professor of work and organizational psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, identified excessive work and compulsive work as the behavioral and cognitive components of work addiction, respectively. In terms of behavior, workaholics spend large amounts of time and energy on work and do work more than needed, while in terms of cognition, they ponder over work even while they are off the clock.

Multiple causes

With regard to the causes of work addiction, some researchers have reviewed the previous studies and developed five perspectives to interpret this phenomenon.

First are the two models of addiction: psychological addiction and chemical addiction. The former assumes that workaholics are dependent on the feelings brought by work, while the latter assumes that they are dependent on the adrenaline generated by overwork. However, both of these theories remain unverified.

Second is the theory of learned behavior. Work addiction can be explained as an amplified expectation that may result from personal morality or commitment or from the promise of rewards, such as bonuses or pay increases. It is also a likely result of learned behavior from parents, superiors or colleagues, which is similar to the role model in social learning theory. Such an assumption, though prevalent, has not yet been supported by empirical evidence.

The third view is the trait theory, which regards work addiction as a type of pathological personality, such as neurosis, obsession and inflexibility. Stable even when the time or situation changes, individual traits may be used to predict the behavior of work addiction and thus prevent it in selecting employees but are of little use to the intervention on workaholics.

Fourth is the cognitive theory. This perspective theorizes that it is likely work addiction is the result of perceptions, such as the negation of selfworth and the need for praise and a sense of achievement.

Fifth is the family systems theory, which looks at work addiction as a family issue. Work addicts cannot adapt themselves to family life. For instance, influences from the rules, values and behavior patterns of a family may be the key reason for work addiction.

No doubt, the five theories are helpful to developing an understanding of work addiction and preventing it. However, it should be noticed that each theory only involves one aspect of the causes. For instance, the learning theory holds that the intervention strategy should pay attention to those behaviors with amplified expectations but overlooks the cognitive, motivational and emotional aspects behind the individual acts.

The cognitive theory focuses on the false values of workaholics while neglecting the environmental factors that affect individual cognition. The family systems theory puts an emphasis on the family background but ignores the influences of the work environment.

It’s true that work addiction is caused by multiple factors. The latest study by Schaufeli shows that individuals who are highly motivated perfectionists with a strong sense of responsibility and self-efficacy are more likely to become workaholics. It can be seen that work addiction is neither inherent nor acquired but a result of the interactions between individual personalities and the external environment.

Three-stage intervention systems

Based on the aforementioned research, we can conclude that work addiction is an occupational syndrome that includes behavioral and cognitive components. It is the result of an interaction between the internal factors of personalities, cognition, motivation and emotion as well as the external factors of home, workplace and society, making it a complicated individual behavior and social phenomenon.

Therefore, an effective intervention strategy should pay attention not only to the internal factors of individual personalities, perceived values and mental states but also to the external environment where individuals study, live and work. Organizations, households and individuals should make concerted efforts and take both internal and external factors into account to establish a three-stage intervention system: prevention, control and intervention.

First is the mechanism of prevention. The major measure is to reduce potential sources of pressure and improve the environment where people live and work to lower the risk of work addiction. Managers should care for employees’ mental health, advocate the application of scientific methods to enhance efficiency and prevent the use of praise or rewards to encourage overwork. Organizations should make reasonable work requirements and emphasize work-life balance.

For instance, organizations should advocate that employees complete work within office hours, reduce overtime work and avoid bringing work home. They should also help employees develop healthy outlets for leisure and recreation. Organizations can provide consulting services to help employees deal with problems at work or in the home, thus decreasing risks of work addiction. By doing so, employees can maintain mental health and possess the sense of well-being.

Second is the mechanism of control. It’s significant to improve employees’ management skills and abilities to regulate and control themselves in face of work addiction risks mainly through selection and training. Based on the trait theory, individual personality characteristics like pursuing perfection and great achievement are key factors leading to work addiction.

In selecting employees, enterprises should avoid this type of person or put them in suitable positions that are free of high pressure, fierce competition or excessive burdens. In addition, organizations can conduct training programs aimed at building employees’ capacity to manage stress, use time efficiently and resolve conflicts while cultivating social abilities and other special skills, equipping employees with knowledge and strategies to work efficiently, relieve pressure and cope with conflicts. In this way, employees can feel refreshed rapidly after heavy workloads so that work addiction can be kept under control.

Third is the mechanism of intervention. We should intervene in the motivation, cognition, behaviors or emotion of workaholics in order to minimize damage. One approach is motivation intervention. Workaholics can become aware of their own problems through motivation consulting and thus change their motives. In addition to this, we can draw on the experience of workaholic groups in other countries and establish self-help organizations that offer mutual assistance among workaholics and relieve their pains. Moreover, professional counseling and psychotherapy can also be utilized.


Xu Changjiang and Xie Xiaolong are from the Department of Psychology at Zhejiang Normal University.


Translated by Ren Jingyun  

Editor: Yu Hui

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