Where is the line between workaholism and work engagement?

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Scientific interpretation

You sit down at your desk, open a report you’ve been eager to finish and right to work. You’re so absorbed that before you know it, you’ve missed all your breaks and everyone has already left the office for the day but you’re still working! This cycle repeats itself day after day. Employees engage in excessive work for different reasons. Some individuals get lost in their work because they love and are fulfilled by their job. However, other individuals feel compelled to work excessively, even if they don’t enjoy it, because of their own internal guilt about not working. The type of heavy work investment matters, because while the former can provide high returns for productivity and good health, the latter is associated with poor health outcomes and issues with long term productivity.

But how can we distinguish the type of heavy work investment employees are engaging in? In their 2019 paper, Di Stefano and Gaudiino seek to explore the similarities and differences of the two different forms of heavy investment in work, workaholism and work engagement, while examining the influence of nationality.


Maria GAUDIINO, PhD candidate, KU Leuven, Belgium


Kimberly SHARPE, research assistant, University of British Columbia, Canada
Marie-Élise LABRECQUE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.



The pathological form of heavy work investment.

An individual devotes an excessive amount of time to work that is not justified by financial concerns or organizational demands but instead by the individual’s compulsion to work.[1]This compulsion is driven by individuals feeling distressed or guilty if they are not working.

Workaholics neglect the non-work spheres of their life, such as their health or social lives. This form of work investment is linked to lower levels of mental and physical health, poorer social relationships and high levels work-life conflict.

While workaholics can be very productive in the short-term, ongoing poor health and inability to delegate and trust co-workers can cause issues with productivity in the long-term. 

What are the dimensions that make up workaholism?

Working excessively: spending too much time on work-related activities.

Working compulsively: the underlying push to work and feelings of guilt experienced by an individual when they are not working – this highlights the addictive component of workaholism.


Work engagement

The healthy form of heavy work investment.

Engaged workers invest heavily in work through their own genuine will and enjoyment of work and do not sacrifice their non-work spheres as a result.[2] It is considered a positive, fulfilling state of mind.[3]

Work engagement is associated with positive emotions, good health and better work performance.

What are the dimensions that make up work engagement?

Vigour: the energy level that helps sustain heavy investment work.

Dedication: thoughts and feelings that make employees proud, involved and enthusiastic about their work.

Absorption: an intense concentration in work; employees have difficulty tearing themselves away from their work.


Complete reference

Di Stefano, G., Gaudiino, M. (2019). Workaholism and work engagement: how are they similar? How are they different? A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28(3), 863-879. DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2019.1590337


A review of literature that combines and analyzes data from multiple studies to examine how the dimensions that make up workaholism and work engagement may overlap or be associated.

Study conducted in: Italy
Number of articles: 27
Nationalities included in the study: Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, Israeli, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, Turkish

What are the findings of the study?

The authors found that workaholism and work engagement are distinct but that some of their dimensions overlap:

How work engagement

and workaholism overlap

How work engagement

and workaholism are distinct

The work engagement dimension of absorption was associated with workaholism dimensions working excessively and working compulsively

  • Being absorbed in work activities can result in more intense time commitment and as a result engaged workers are more likely to work beyond standard hours than non-engaged co-workers.
  • Absorption in work might points to a shared connection to the compulsive side of workaholism in that engaged workers absorbed in their work may experience difficulty in stopping working.

There was no association between the workaholism dimension of working compulsively and the work engagement dimensions of dedication and vigor

  • This finding suggests that a defining difference between the two types of heavy investment in work is the underlying push motivating this investment.
  • The underlying push for workaholics is a sense of obligation, obsession and drive. In contrast, the underlying push for engaged workers is dedication, pride and enthusiasm for one’s work, as well as a sense of vitality, strength and energy in the workplace.


Role of Nationality

The authors found differences between workaholism and work engagement that are contextual and based on an employee’s nationality.
Social, economic, and cultural views of work ethic impact how employees perceive their work experiences in terms of being devoted and energized by work versus being compulsive or feeling guilty.
However, this is an area that requires future research to identify concrete trends. 

Avenues of action for employers?

Use (and teach) delegation

  • Ensure employees (in particular, managers responsible for a team) are able to effectively delegate work to their coworkers. This allows to better manage and monitor the time spent in work. Conversely, non-delegation could lead to excessive workload and early burnout.
    This can be done in a number of ways. For example:
    • Foster a positive work culture that encourages teamwork.
    • Provide employees, including managers, with training for soft-skills (such as delegating work). For example, training sessions can be held through informal “lunch and learn” seminars.

Encourage work-life balance

  • Promote work-life balance policies and programs in order to protect employees’ personal and relational domains and prevent them from strain.
    • Managers can provide positive examples for adopting these policies or programs. For example, managers can set the tone by not responding to emails outside of work hours if their organization has adopted a “no emails after hours” policy or by demonstrating to employees that they take weekends off.
  • Flexible working arrangements can allow employees to better manage responsibilities outside of work.
    • Employers should keep in mind that workaholics can end up working longer hours when they have autonomy over their schedule. It is important to have discussions with employees about the pros and cons of flexible work and how to effectively use it to encourage work-life balance.

Focus on quality

  • Put the emphasis on the quality of work, rather than on the quantity of the tasks completed. Working longer does not mean performing better.
    • For example, structure your organization’s reward system to recognize the quality of a task and not the number of hours or tasks completed.
  • Managers can help employees with their time management. For instance, by identifying important tasks so that employees can focus their attention or by ensuring employees have access to non-interrupted work time to tackle tasks.

Be aware of cultural factors in work ethic

  • Employers should be aware of cultural differences regarding work ethic values when they are assessing if an employee is showing signs of obsession for work.
  • An organizational culture that encourages delegation and teamwork, work-life balance and a focus on quality can help foster a higher quality of working life across cultures.



Gaudiino, M., Sharpe, K., Labrecque, M.-E. (2019). Where is the line between workaholism and work engagement?. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com


Di Stefano, G., Gaudiino, M. (2019). Workaholism and work engagement: how are they similar? How are they different? A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28(3), 863-879. DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2019.1590337


1. Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Bakker, A. B. (2008). It takes two to tango: Workaholism is working excessively and working compulsively. In R. J. Burke & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The long work hours culture: Causes, consequences and choices (pp. 203–226). Bingley, UK: Emerald.

2. Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., … Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 756–767.

3. Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., González-Romá, V., & Bakker, A. B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A two sample confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(1), 71–92.

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton

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