Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021


We live in the age of the overworked and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. (Oscar Wilde, The Critic and the Artist, 1897)

Overwork, n. A dangerous disorder affecting high public functionaries who want to go fishing. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906)

Workaholism, like alcoholism, is a very unhealthy addiction. But unlike other forms of addiction, which are held in contempt, workaholism is frequently lauded, praised, expected and even demanded. Signs of this ’syndrome’ included boasting of long working hours, invidious comparisons between self and others on the amount of work achieved, inability to refuse requests for work, and general competitiveness:

The workaholic’s way of life is considered in America to be one and the same time: (a) a religious virtue, (b) a form of patriotism, (c) the way to win friends and influence people, (d) the way to be healthy and wise. Therefore the workaholic, plagued though he is, is unlikely to change. Why? Because he is short of paragon of virtue... he is the one chosen as ’the most likely to succeed’.

Oates (1971) listed five types of workaholic:

Dyed-in-the-wool — with five major characteristics: high standards of professionalism, tendency to perfectionism, vigorous intolerance of incompetence, overcommitment to institutions and organizations, considerable talent with marketable skills.

Converted — a person who has given up the above but may behave like a workaholic on occasions for the rewards of money or prestige.

Situational — workaholism not for psychological or prestige reasons but necessity within an organization.

Pseudo-workaholic — someone who may look on occasion as a workaholic but has none of the commitment and dedication of a true dyed-in-the-wool character.

Escapist as a workaholic — these are people who remain in the office simply to avoid going home or taking part in social relationships.

Machlowitz (1980), who is known for her work in this area, has defined workaholics as people whose desire to work long and hard is intrinsic and whose work habits almost always exceed the prescriptions of the job they do and the expectations of the people with whom, or for whom, they work. According to Machlowitz all true workaholics are intense, energetic, competitive and driven but also have strong self-doubts. They prefer labour to leisure and can — and do — work anytime and anywhere. They tend to make the most of their time and blur the distinctions between business and pleasure.

All workaholics have these traits, but may be subdivided into four distinct types.

• The dedicated workaholic. These are quintessentially the single-minded, one-dimensional workaholics frequently described by laypeople and journalists. They shun leisure and are often humourless and brusque.

• The integrated workaholic. This type does integrate outside features into their work. Thus, although work is ’everything’, it does sometimes include extracurricular interests.

• The diffuse workaholic. This type has numerous interests, connections and pursuits which are far more scattered than those of the integrated workaholic. Furthermore they may change jobs fairly frequently in pursuit of their ends.

• The intense workaholic. This type approaches leisure (frequently competitive sport) with the same passion, pace and intensity as work. They become as preoccupied by leisure as work.

To some extent it is thought that workaholism is an obsessive—compulsive neurosis characterized by sharp, narrowed, focused attention, endless activity, ritualistic behaviours, and a ’strong desire to be in control’. It is perhaps linked to perfectionism, pathological ambition, even the OCD personality disorder.

Machlowitz offered a number of reasons why workaholics shun vacations and time-off: they have never had a good experience of holidays either because they have expected too much or chose the wrong type; as their jobs are their passion they do not feel that they need to get away from it all; traditional forms of recreation seem like a waste of time and incomprehensible to them; the preparation for and anxiety that precedes taking a holiday are more trouble than they are worth; and, finally, workaholics are afraid that they would lose complete control of their jobs if they left for a holiday.

However, many workaholics do report being remarkably satisfied and content with their lives. Machlowitz found little difference between workaholic men and women’s source of joy and frustration. These were fourfold: whether the workaholic did their share of household duties in their home life; whether their job offered them autonomy control, and variety; whether the job needed the workaholic’s ’particular’ skills and working styles; whether the workaholics felt healthy and fit for work. Though they appear to never feel successful, many non-frustrated workaholics do report happiness. Finally, Machlowitz offered some advice for workaholics, maximizing the pleasures and minimizing the pressures of that particular lifestyle:

• Find the job that fits — that exercises one’s skills and abilities.

• Find the place that fits — that provides the most convivial environment.

• Find the pace that fits — that allows one to work at the most desirable speed.

• Create challenges in your work — to deal with pressures effectively.

• Diversify each day — because of short attention spans.

• Make sure that every day is different — to improve levels of stimulation.

• Use your time; don’t let it use you — establish your own circadian rhythm and plan your day around it.

• Don’t deliberate excessively on decisions that don’t warrant the attention.

• Let others do things for you — learn how to delegate.

• Work alone or hire only other workaholics — to prevent intolerance and impatience with others.

• Become a mentor, teacher, guide and counsellor to others.

• Make sure you make time for what matters to you — such as your family, leisure pursuits.

• Get professional help — if you have a job, home or health crisis as a function of your life.


Furnham, A. (1990). The Protestant Work Ethic. London: Routledge.

Machlowitz, M. (1980). Workaholics. New York: Mentor.

Oates, W. (1971). Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction. New York: World Publishing Co.