How To Deal With Workaholism On Web Teams

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A “workaholic” is someone who is addicted to work. Soon, they neglect their family, friends, health, sometimes damaging them all irrevocably. Some people who work on the Web seem not only to disregard the dangers of workaholism, but to actively promote it. They see it as a badge of honor—but it’s a serious issue that can damage Web teams. In contrast, people who simply “work hard” do not expose themselves to such dangers.

Workaholism is often confused with hard work. Some people who work on the Web seem not only to disregard its dangers, but to actively promote it. They see it as a badge of honor—but is it really? On the contrary, it’s a serious issue that can damage Web teams.

Before we get started, let’s make one thing clear: A “workaholic” is someone who is addicted to work, someone who is out of balance and out of control. Their addiction can make them work for 12, 14 or even more hours a day, every day. No weekends, no vacations, just work. Soon, they neglect their family, friends, health, sometimes damaging them all irrevocably.

In contrast, people who simply “work hard” do not expose themselves to such dangers. Putting in a few extra hours to meet a critical deadline doesn’t usually result in workaholism, provided that those sprints are rare and justified.

On Good Web Teams

Running a modern Web business can be demanding. As a result, some business owners stretch their employees as far as they can. What they fail to realize is that working 40 hours per week is enough. Any more and both the employees and the business could be harmed, startups included.

Productivity depends not only on working hours, but on intensity of work. Here’s a magic equation:

work accomplished = time spent × intensity of focus

Pushing people to work more hours is a superficial solution, not a viable one.

Good teams, winning teams, are fragile ecosystems. Members communicate with each other through different media (face to face, instant messages, email, project management software), and the communication is often asynchronous (thus, accommodating both early birds and night owls, as well as people in other time zones). Once a team finds its pace, that rhythm must be protected.

Members of this fragile ecosystem are connected by invisible bonds of respect and care. Teams are made up of humans. You can see this in action on a sports team: When an opponent attacks a member of the team, the rest rush to protect their teammate. That’s team spirit.

Workaholics have a much more extreme approach to work. They work far more than 40 hours per week, they disrupt the rhythm of the team, and they disregard the invisible bonds of care and respect. Just one of them is enough to damage the health of a good team.

How Does Someone Become A Workaholic?

Think of the movies that feature a lonely computer programmer, coding non-stop day and night. The character is familiar. But can computers themselves stimulate workaholism? They are, after all, absorbing and entertaining at once. Losing control seems to be a greater danger for us than for other professionals. However, a job can’t turn someone into a workaholic. Workaholics tend to be rigid, perfectionist and born achievers.

“He would waste no hour.” (Image: Iana Peralta)

Workaholics have a characteristic that distinguishes them from people who just love their work: personal insecurity. Personal insecurity is associated with neuroticism, another inherent characteristic of workaholics, according to the study “Personality Correlates of Workaholism” (PDF). Peter E. Mudrack, in his chapter “Understanding Workaholism: The Case for Behavioral Tendencies” for the book Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction, connects workaholism to feelings of low self-worth and insecurity.

Insecurity comes in many guises: low self-esteem, antagonism, authoritarianism, severe fear of failure, perfectionism. The actions of workaholics express an urgent need to prove to themselves and to others that they’re better than everyone else in the room. Deep down, they hurt. Some feel like a failure in their personal life and use their job to escape from a bad relationship or to make up for an absence in their personal life.

Sometimes people become workaholics for less complicated reasons. A big loan or a personal debt are tangible problems. If someone is in desperate need of money, they’ll work as much as they can to get it. Supporting a large family is also a huge burden. Such situations are oppressive and make some people abandon their principles and become workaholics.

In some ways, workaholism is a symptom of modern society. We live in a culture where productivity is paramount and the boundaries between leisure and work are no longer clear. We’re raising a generation of people who not only love their work but put it at the center of their lives. The entrepreneurial lifestyle is held up as the model of how to work on the Web. Slowly, gradually, we are changing our fundamental values and criteria for success.

Are You A Workaholic?

Most workaholics wouldn’t admit that they’re one to themselves, let alone to anyone else. If you’re worried that you might be one, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • “Do I work far more than 40 hours per week?”
  • “Do I feel a continual urge to prove that I’m the best among my colleagues?”
  • “Do I recognize signs of intense insecurity in myself about work?”
  • “Are my personal and work lives balanced?”

There’s even an online quiz that could help you. It’s simple and short.

You could bury your head in the sand and pretend that everything is OK. But if you suspect that you’re a workaholic, then doing something about it is critical. And if you still think workaholism is cool, please keep on reading.

The Attractiveness Of Workaholics

Yes, some employers love workaholics. But why are workaholics so appealing?

  • They work longer hours than the rest of the team.
  • They don’t mind taking work home.
  • Outworking everyone else makes them seem like they care. Always taking on responsibility and being at work all of the time make them look valuable. And carrying on under any circumstance makes them a fighter.

They know what employers want, and they’re eager to give it.

Let’s take a look at two archetypal workaholics.

1. The Committed Lead Programmer

Upon conducting extensive research, an experienced lead programmer comes up with a number of different database implementations to apply to a Web project. He decides to test each one thoroughly to find the best one. This doesn’t impinge on anyone’s time except his own. He decides to take the job home and works day and night to accomplish the task. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s committed. All he wants is to be appreciated for his dedication and work.

Pretty compelling, right? A meticulous Web worker who sacrifices his personal time to advance the project.

2. The Project Manager With Mettle

In a casual company meeting, a project manager promises stakeholders a sophisticated implementation of a service on an incredibly tight schedule. He’s not afraid to take responsibility for the project, and he promises to check every single aspect of it personally. If that requires him to push the team as far as he can, then so be it.

Stakeholders leave the meeting impressed by his loyalty and determination. At last, they have found someone they can count on.

The characters above are just a couple of the types of workaholics in our industry. There are many: the superstar designer who’s willing to present multiple design directions; the perfectionist developer who insists on flawless code, even sacrificing his summer vacations. The list goes on.

Such people look much more attractive than their coworkers who stick to eight-hour workdays. They have charisma, they work hard, and they should be praised, if not promoted.

“Office hours” are sometimes relative. (Image: Florian Boyd)

The Fake Glow Of Workaholism

The glow of this perfectionism is false. These practices are only temporarily fruitful, and they can eventually result in disaster. The reason is that workaholism is a shortsighted strategy, one that encourages people to express the worst parts of their personality.

Why is it shortsighted? Because the committed programmer cited above is unconsciously hurting his team’s spirit. As Scott Berkun notes:

"Simply outworking other people can have a negative effect on others: that 5× improvement may create a -2× impact on everyone else: if the star demoralizes others and goes out of his way to embarrasses them with his talent, morale and productivity are sure to drop."

Furthermore, even the most productive employees can’t keep working with such intensity for long. They will eventually wear out, as will their ability to think clearly. They will no longer be able to contribute to the team or make sound decisions. A successful team needs steady performance from its members more than heroic efforts. A member who temporarily outworks the rest of the team soon becomes an obstacle because they can’t work as part of the team, despite their best intentions.

And why does workaholism lead people to show the dark side of their personality? Let’s return to our second character type. The project manager who would do anything to keep his promise will end up creating too much tension by pushing the team members to their limit. Even if he pushes himself more, he will not inspire anyone; he will merely be a foolish dictator — not a member of the team, but an opponent.

When a team struggles to cope with an impossible project and infighting occurs, the incredible pressure will reduce the overall quality of the work. In such an environment, the manager could very easily get someone out of their way by derailing them, as Shanley explains:

"Any disagreement or critique is transformed into a symptom of pathology on the part of the dissenter. Managers may imply that the individual is unstable, emotionally disturbed, or has a mental disorder. Commonly, this includes overtly stating or implying that the dissenter is “too emotional,” should “take some time off,” “has an anger problem,” is “hostile,” is “overly aggressive,” “takes things too seriously/personally” or “has a problem with authority."

In the best case scenario, the workaholic will end up exhausted, needing weeks or even months to recover. In the worst case scenario, the team will derail and the members will be dispirited.

Workaholic Companies

Too many workaholic companies are out there, and it’s pretty easy for an employer to create one. All the employer has to do is push people to work beyond their limit and punish the ones who don’t. Big companies such as McKinsey have have sought out such people, according to CNN.

Workaholic companies are machines that burn people out. They don’t care about creating teams. They exploit the enthusiasm of young people and dry them up. One indicator of a workaholic company is that its contractors rarely stay with it for more than a few years.

There are other ways to identify workaholic companies. A few people proudly call themselves workaholics, but most people don’t boast about it, and spotting one from the outside can be hard. However, they can be identified. Before entering a new work environment, search for the “local heroes” — the people who urge everyone else to work more, who can’t have a good laugh during working hours or who constantly talk about “the good of the company.” Can you find the individuals who, beyond a doubt, elicit unpleasant feelings from the rest of the team? They are the ones to watch out for.

Go on. Don’t be afraid to ask straight questions of potential employers during interviews. They may respond vaguely, but try to get crystal clear answers. Some employers expect you to be as dedicated as them, to put yourself in their shoes. Or they will tell you that the company is now your home and that you should do whatever it takes to make it thrive. If you hear these words, run away!

Remember that you work for money, but money alone is not enough. A job is also about being satisfied, which comes from an effective management style, good use of the team’s various skills and a pleasant atmosphere. A workaholic company needs you more than you need it. You deserve better.

Working With Workaholics
Workaholics tend to lose track of time — voluntarily or involuntarily. (Image credit: “Microaggression and Management”.)

Working With Workaholics

An environment where workaholism is the norm soon gets frustrating. You will quickly find yourself with two choices: follow the others or stand your ground and work according to your own conscience.

The first option is an admission of defeat. You’re saying, “I won’t try to change the situation here because, if I do so, my job will be at risk.” While no one would blame you for taking this route, you will wither day by day, dying a slow death.

The second option brings its own problems. You must be prepared to fight for your right to work normally. Remain calm, patient and diligent, while questioning everything. You could raise the following questions:

  • How is performance measured?
  • Why are deadlines so harsh?
  • Who is ultimately responsible, and what happens when things go wrong?
  • What are the procedures for making complaints?
  • What is the past and future of the company?

If you do find yourself in a workaholic company, the first thing to do is keep sane and keep working. Try to find out why things have gone wrong. Ask questions in front of others so that they feel empowered to ask questions, too. Workaholism affects everyone, but not everyone feels free to speak up. If you never talk about it, no one will help you.

If the culture of the company as a whole promotes workaholism, then your employer might not be happy with you for pointing it out. Your employer might think that someone who works eight hours a day doesn’t work enough and will tempt others to work less. It’s not going to be easy, but it is worth the effort. If you can demonstrate that workaholism is destructive, then you’ll gradually change the culture of the company, a huge win.

Fighting Workaholism

Modern businesses need strong teams, not overworked individuals. They need healthy environments, with people who care as much for their teammates as they do for their products.

Fighting workaholism is not easy, but it can be done. How?

  • Be eager to reject workaholism. Every. Single. Day.
  • Learn to recognize workaholics.
  • Avoid workaholic companies. You won’t regret it.
  • If you are at a workaholic company now, end your workday at a reasonable time, or suffer the consequences.
  • Spread the word.

Employers are responsible for workaholism, but if Web workers reject workaholic companies, then those employers would have to change their ways.

Perhaps you’re saying, “What if I’m the employer?”

It’s simple, really. By now, you must have realized that promoting workaholism won’t take you far. So, stand up, leave your desk and see if any workaholics are destroying your fragile ecosystem. Help them to bring balance back to their life. And if that doesn’t work, then do as the smart folks say: fire the workaholic!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, il, mrn)