The Distinct Types of Workaholics

by Krishna on March 15, 2008

Jason Calacanis, CEO of mahalo.com, recently generated some heated controversy over his statement “Fire people who are not workaholics” as part of a longer post about how to save money running a startup. While many people criticized him for not understanding what work-life balance means, a few others supported him for suggesting what startups require to succeed. Calacanis later changed his statement to “Fire people who don’t love their work” and wrote another post attempting to answer the question of whether one can have a life and work at a startup company.

I felt that neither his posts nor the various reactions (positive and negative) carefully considered the different types of workaholics and the circumstances and motivations under which a workaholic operates. In this essay, I would like to explore the difference between voluntary and involuntary workaholics and also the relationship between being a workaholic and liking one’s job. Let us also take a look at the benefits vs. costs of such behavior.

A workaholic can be defined as someone who spends extraordinary time or effort at his or her work. The similarity with the word “alcoholic” provides a negative tone, meaning that the person is “addicted” to his or her work and would rather spend time at work rather than activities that most people find enjoyable. However, in some work environments, being called a “workaholic” can be positive because it means someone who is dedicated to and loves their work beyond everything else. Such a person is committed to the goals of the organization, and hence is a team player who can be relied upon.

In this context, the term “involuntary workaholic” can seem puzzling because it conflicts with the general belief that workaholics derive pleasure from what they are doing. This confusion arises from the problem that we associate the behavior of working longer with the intention of working longer. We think that just because someone works longer, they want to work longer and hence they must be workaholics. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Involuntary workaholics are those people who are driven by external forces to work longer, even though they would rather be doing something else. Insufficient staffing, inflexible deadlines, lack of planning, improper prioritization, bad estimates, poor quality and unforeseen risks can create circumstances where employees and managers have to work harder and longer. Many workaholics are actually victims of situations created by themselves or other people or processes in their organization. They are working harder because they have no other choice.

A second type of involuntary workaholic is created by managers who wrongly associate more effort with more output, and reward or encourage workaholic behavior. Such managers are themselves busy all the time and they want to see everyone put in as much effort as they do. Such a direction puts pressure on everyone to demonstrate their “dedication”. However the proxy for more effort is simply “more time spent in the office” or “more face time with the manager”, not necessarily actual work.

Quality is the first casualty in a workaholic environment as people hit biological limits on their body and brains and start making elementary mistakes. Then, the rate of work getting done starts decreasing, because people get too tired to contribute as effectively, and also need time to fix the mistakes that they made. In the end, there is only a very short-term improvement in productivity coupled with major quality problems and a long-term decline in productivity and increase in attrition due to employee resentment.

Another problem often ignored in this situation is that only some employees are better placed to be involuntary workaholics and can produce more if they work more. For example, unmarried young employees have generally fewer responsibilities than married employees or employees with children. When everyone works longer, some of them may contribute more while others may resent the situation and contribute less. So overall, there is no gain, even temporarily.

Now, let us look at voluntary workaholism. Some people object to this term because they cannot imagine someone being addicted to their work. But like any passion or mania, it is difficult for people who don’t have the same feelings to understand those who have it. Voluntary workaholics spend incredible amounts of time and effort on their profession. Their interest does not seem to decline once they are outside the office. If you ask them, they love their work and enjoy the time spent at doing it.

From an organization’s standpoint, there are significant advantages to having voluntary workaholics over involuntary ones. Voluntary workaholics are more knowledgeable and produce high quality of work consistently. They tend to be more flexible with changing needs because they have more time at their disposal. They are willing to take on more responsibilities, even if they sometimes overestimate their capabilities.

Many organizations seek out such people and try to reward such behavior. As mentioned previously, that carries the risk of increased involuntary workaholism by other individuals, so a little care is necessary. The first thing to understand is that there is no substitute for proper estimation and planning. That creates your baseline for measuring individual productivity as well as setting standards for quality. When you do this, you can measure the extra effort by the individual in meeting targets in schedule and quality. That may be the basis for a reward system.

It is also essential to understand how your organization motivates the voluntary workaholic. Remember that one’s love for the profession and one’s love for the tasks done in the profession may not have a linear correlation. For example, a programmer may be excited and animated when talking about their work in general, but they may be periods of time when they have to work on tedious, boring and repetitive tasks. Sometimes a workaholic may be working late just because that is the only uninterrupted time for the tasks they enjoy doing.

Another problem is the decision making on the project. A voluntary workaholic likes the creative aspect of work. So when their work environment is dominated by a few senior people who evaluate options and make all the decisions, they may decide to spend greater effort on some personal project (related to their profession) where they get to play the boss. So it is important for managers to understand how to channel the workaholic’s enthusiasm towards the work at hand.

A twist on this entire situation is that workaholics can turn into involuntary workaholics. During uncertain economic times, the workaholic may decide to spend more effort than usual to preserve their job. Alternatively, a new situation in the workaholic’s life, like a marriage or a new child, can reduce the effort they can spend. This happens more frequently than managers realize. The issue here is that workaholics fear that reducing their effort would be viewed negatively and thus they have no exit strategy.

So far, we have been talking about workaholic employees. But there are also workaholic employers. The motivations which drive them are very different from the workaholic employees. They have a direct financial incentive towards working longer hours, because usually additional effort from them results in more positive results for the organization such as increased revenue or better products. So there is a certain level of involuntary behavior here, because business reality demands them to spend more hours until they find good people to delegate to.

Some (though not all) business owners have already achieved financial security and consider their business an additional investment in something they enjoy doing. This may be contrary to their employees who need the job to survive and pay their bills, even if they love the job. The employer would be mistaken in his or her assumption that employees share the exact same feelings about the job situation. The ongoing success of the business concern can play a huge part in the motivation of employees.

A final word: Workaholics are seldom understood by other people, who always tend to project their feelings on them. Some people admire them and call them passionate, dedicated and hard-working. Others mock them for not worrying about their health or personal relationships, as well as missing out on other things in life. Very few truly try to comprehend their internal motivations and their circumstances. I hope this article changes that attitude to some extent, at least.

{ 3 comments }

Dr Greg May 13, 2008 at 8:18 pm

You have left out of your discussions the type of person that is, in my mind, a true Workaholic.

As an adult child of a workaholic I can tell you that the most insidious and destructive form of workaholism has little to do with the demands of the job like long hours to get projects done or cover for poor planning or the demands of management. It has everything to do with the fact the workaholic does his or her job and then comes home and finds other work to do that is just as time consuming as being away from home simply because he or she fears what will happen if they do not work at something. The results are every bit as destructive as alcoholism and the ramifications are passed on for generations.

Please stop making light of this very real and very damaging disease.

Krishna Kumar May 14, 2008 at 7:35 am

@Dr Greg

You bring a valid point. I do not mean to discount such a human condition which is destructive to the person and his or her family members.

My point was quite different, though, and perhaps more associated with the software industry, where people tend to work very late hours. Much of this is related to the work environment, than the persons themselves. If the opposite was the case, we would see only a few persons working late, and the rest working normal hours.

Ann November 26, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Workaholics seems to be admired in the United States. Many people brag about being busy at work. But they’re probably unhappy, unhealthy, on the edge of divorce, and maybe still in debt.

I hope we change to encourage work-life balance… self-awareness, health and relationships.

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