Cheryl A. Moore, PsyD

CEO, Prestige Countertops & Services

Workaholism: Is the individual masking an underlying trauma and work is a way to cope?We often hear about the studies and effects of addictive behaviors like food, drugs, and alcohol, but what do we know about the addictive behavior of a workaholic? One would think if an individual were addicted to work the employee would be an asset to the organization. Many researchers portray workaholics positively and suggest that the participants in their studies were very satisfied and productive.  Other researchers, however, depict workaholics as obsessive, unhappy, tragic individuals who are not performing their jobs well and who create difficulties for their co-workers. Would understanding the characteristics and types of workaholics allow us to better manage the effects of these individuals in our organizations? Is it better to understand the underlying why of this addiction? Is the individual masking an underlying trauma and work is a way to cope?  Is workaholism due to cultural or economic factors?  To better answer these questions, let’s look at what researchers suggest about this addiction.

Oates (1971) originally coined the term workaholism and defined it as a compulsion, necessity, and uncontrolled addiction to perform work relentlessly.  Spence and Robbins (1992) concurred as the authors defined the workaholic as a person who “is highly work involved, feels compelled or driven to work because of inner pressures, and is low in enjoyment at work” (p. 62).  So, how do we know that the individual is a workaholic and not just an over worker?  Researchers have suggested that the over worker knows the boundaries between work and personal life and feel good when they are not at work.  It is common for a workaholic to take work home, work while on vacation, and even continue to work when sick. Psychosocial damage can occur in a workaholic because of excessive work rhythms and an uncontrollable motivation to work. The individual devotes so much time and effort to work that it ends up harming other important areas of life. 

To establish common characteristics and a profile for the workaholic individual, Salanova  et al (2007) suggested some common characteristics among them:

  • Great importance of work – the addicted individual expresses a great significance to work.  Everything revolves around work and work becomes the most important thing in life, more than family, friends, and free time.

  • Intensity and vitality – workaholics have a lot of energy and vitality that is often driven by competitiveness. They constantly compare themselves to others.

  • Control – the addicted individual needs to be in control of everything they do and their work environment.  Lack of control makes them feel extremely uncomfortable.  This makes if difficult to delegate tasks when they prefer to personally control the situation.

  • Excessive habits – they work harder than asked.  The workaholic has good short-term performance, but because they have such high expectations of themselves, they tend to have increasingly difficult and unattainable goals creating long-term problems that result in a sense of failure.

  • Different interpersonal relationships – they are concerned with their own work, but not with the relationship of others at work.  Their lack of communication makes it harder to relate to others and delegate tasks; working on a team is seen only as an obligation for them.

Additionally, Scott et al (1997) proposed three types of workaholic behavior patterns:

  • Compulsive-dependent.  This individual positively relates to levels of anxiety, stress, and physical and psychological problems, which are negatively related to job performance and job and life satisfaction.  The compulsion to work shows dependence on the work as the individual works excessively and irrationally.  Even when the individual realizes the excess, he is unable to control himself and allow himself to reduce his workload.

  • Perfectionism.  This is positively related to stress, physical and psychological problems, hostile interpersonal relationships, low job satisfaction, poor performance and voluntary turnover and absenteeism.  This goes back to the control characteristic listed above as the individual wants to remain in control in a rigid and non-flexible way.

  • Achievement oriented.  This is also positively related to physical and psychological health, in addition to job and life satisfaction and job performance.  This individual has a speculative character and the spirit of an entrepreneur. There is a willingness and motivation to wait for rewards, a forward look to professional growth at any cost, and a lot of patience to deal with questions and competitiveness.  

We can see by the above characteristics and workaholic patterns that there is a definitive line between an over-worker or “work-lover” and a workaholic.  Those who love the work they do feel pleasure in their job and know how to manage their time.  Work is not seen as a punishment or burden, even if it is in excess, but rather an opportunity to leverage and develop their career.  The work-lover also shows pleasure in sharing achievements and demonstrates positive team learning.  The workaholic dedicates himself exclusively to his work, neglecting his personal and social life, whereas the work-lover can manage his time and effort between work and social life.  

As suggested in the beginning, a workaholic may be considered an asset to your organization, however, the harmful effects of workaholism on an individual’s life can be an important consideration, we can help a workaholic manage by developing a work life balance while keeping a busy schedule.  If we have an employee who struggles with delegating tasks, appears to have control issues, and does not work well on team projects, we may need to pay closer attention to this individual.  Maybe it is not about the work, but rather an underlying personal issue for the individual that is being reflected in his work behavior. By understanding the characteristics and patterns of a workaholic we can be cognizant of our employees work behavior and help them manage their job in a positive way so they can take the time needed to deal with the personal issue they are masking with their job. 

There is a plethora of scholarly, peer-reviewed studies available on workaholism. If you are interested in more information on this topic, you can search ProQuest and other research sites. Researched information for this article is from the following sources.


Oates, W. (1971). Confessions of a Workaholic: The facts about work addiction. World, New York, NY.

Salanova, M., Del Libano, M., Llorens, S., & Schaufeli, W.  (2007). Engaged, workaholic, burned-out or just 9-to-5? Toward a typology of employee well-being. Stress Health, 30 (71-81). doi 10.1002/smi.2499

Scott, K. S., Moore, K. S., and Micelli, M. P. (1997). An exploration of the meaning and consequences of workaholism. Human Relations, 50, (287-314).

Spence, J. T., and Robbins, A. S. (1992). Workaholism, definition, measurement and preliminary results. Journal of Personality Assessment, 58 (160-78).

Cheryl is the CEO of Prestige Countertops & Services, Inc. Contact her at .