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Workaholic vs. Work Engaged

Many say that language is one of the most important components of a culture and argue that in order to fully understand a certain culture you have to speak its language. Some cognitive researchers even suggest that language shapes the way we think and perceive the world. If so, the fact that the term Workaholic was coined in 1968 and only gained widespread use in 1990s really teaches us something about ourselves. Mainly that the workplace has changed drastically in recent years and has become significantly more demanding and competitive. That, along with computer- and mobile-based working, has led employees to work around the clock and has made the blurry borders between work and personal life even more faded.

Workaholism is considered to be the “bad” type of working hard, but in recent years a new and “good” type of working hard was introduced in literature, Work Engagement. I will dedicate this post to talk about the differences between the two from a motivational perspective, basing my arguments on a study conducted by researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The article focuses on understanding these two “working hard” types by using Self-Determination Theory (SDT). In short, this theory argues that there is a direct and close link between the work environment and employee motivation. Work environment can enable or damage internalization and integration processes, intrinsic motivation, and personal growth, and therefore it can affect weather the individuals active in it become workaholics or work engaged.

Workaholism: Love for their profession is not what drives workaholics to work hard. Rather, a sense of obligation is pushing them to work harder than what is actually demanded of them. For them, not working evokes stress, anxiety, and guilt, and working provides them with a cure for those negative feelings. They experience what is described by SDT as “Introjected Regulation”; they rigidly adopt external standards of self-worth and social approval without fully identifying with these standards. Workaholics’ self-esteem and worth is determined based upon their ability to live up to those external standards. Work environments that emphasize controlling employees’ motivation with promotions and pay raises, supervisor’s approval, and peer admiration are likely to push employees to workaholism.

Work Engagement: Unlike workaholics, work-engaged employees do find their job interesting and actually feel a desire to engage in it. Because they are mostly intrinsically motivated, involuntary attempts to regulate them are usually in vain. They instead experience “Identified Regulation”; external standards and internal values are similar and therefore are internalized and become a part of the employee’s self. These employees pursue goals that fit their ideals, interests, and values and therefore are engaged in these goals for autonomous reasons. Work environments that focus on giving employees the freedom to do their job as they see fit and that include employees in decision-making processes are more likely to support the creation of work engagement.

One point is clear: if your personal goals and values go side by side with your business’s goals and values, you’re much more likely to be engaged in your work rather than obsess about it. In many cases, SMB owners are prime examples of work engagement. Even though running the day-to-day operations may make you feel like a workaholic sometimes, thinking back to what made you start your business can remind you that you are actually engaged in it.

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