Workaholics and Burnout - Does Employee Engagement Really Help?

It's a commonly held belief that people who are engaged and work hard are good for an organisation, producing better results and demonstrating higher levels of commitment. But what about those who work too hard? Is it possible for a person to be too engaged with their work? And does that lead to burnout and negative performance?

As I've discussed in a previous blog, most models of employee engagement don't examine what actually drives people to work hard and contribute more to an organisation. This muddies the water between workaholism and work-engagement and may explain why employee engagement scores and measures of performance don't always align. Organisations with supposedly high employee engagement can sometimes be perplexed by relatively poor performance and the incidence of burnout and other negative health outcomes amongst their people. 

A recent study by van Beek, Taris and Schaufeli* separated workaholism and engagement into two distinct concepts. They then looked at various combinations of the two looking at the impact on burnout. They used the following definitions:

  • Workaholism - characterised by the tendency to work excessively hard and being obsessed with work - working compulsively. Workaholism has been associated with negative outcomes such as interpersonal conflict at work, lower job satisfaction, greater work-home interference, poorer social relationships outside work, and more frequent health complaints.
  • Work engagement - a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption. Work engagement has been associated with high job satisfaction, greater commitment to the organisation, more personal initiative, higher performance, lower intention to leave the organisation, and lower absenteeism. 

Their research showed that workaholism and work engagement both lead to people working harder and for longer hours (which would often be seen as 'engagement'). In fact, people who combined the two worked even longer hours. But it was the incidence of burnout amongst these groups that was most interesting (as per the figure below). 

Perhaps not surprisingly, being a workaholic increased the incidence of burnout over non-workaholics. The researchers linked this to work-home interference, poor social relationships, and high levels of job strain. In contrast, being engaged with work decreased the incidence of burnout versus the non-engaged. Interestingly, combining the two (I.e. being a work-engaged workaholic) decreased the level of burnout below that of your regular workaholic. It also reduced the incidence of burnout to below that of non-engaged non-workaholics. Being engaged with work appears to dampen the negative impact of being a workaholic when it comes to burnout. 

Approaches used to improve work engagement are likely to lessen the chance of burnout, even for the workaholics in our organisations. Individual leaders can also help workaholics in their team to become aware of what motivates them, and help them identify greater meaning and purpose in their work. Understanding the difference between workaholism and employee engagement may well increase the sustainability of performance in your organisation. 

* Definitions and results from Ilona van Beek, Toon W. Taris and Wilmar B. Schaufeli (2011) Workaholic and Work Engaged Employees: Dead Ringers or Worlds Apart? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 16, No 4, 468-482. 


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