Research Theory

  • A demonstration of how the study:      
    • Will advance the scientific knowledge base.
    • Is grounded in your field.
    • Addresses something that is not known, something that is new
      or  different from prior research, something that extends prior
      research,  or something that fills a gap in the existing literature.
  • An analysis of any theoretical implications that the proposed study may have for understanding phenomena.
  • A description of the practical implications that may result from the research.

Theory is often used to support a qualitative investigation into a
 human phenomenon. The Program of Research for your School lists
theories  commonly associated with your specialization. Consider your
research  topic. What theory from your specialization supports an
investigation  and/or your research topic?

The assignment should be formatted as follows:

  • Section 1: Describe the key elements of a theory from your specialization (one paragraph).
  • Section 2: Explain how the theory supports the proposed investigation and/or understanding of the topic (1–2 paragraphs).
  • Section 3: Describe how the findings from the proposed study will  impact theory and your field. Explain how your study will advance  scientific knowledge (1–2 paragraphs).
  • Section 4: APA formatted reference page. (The content of your  assignment should be supported with appropriate academic sources and  include both citations and references in APA format.)

Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2018), 91, 235–260

© 2018 The British Psychological Society

A qualitative investigation of the origins of
excessive work behaviour

Melrona Kirrane1* , Marianne Breen2 and Cli�odhna O’Connor3
1Dublin City University Business School, Ireland
2Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
3University College Dublin, Ireland

Studies of workers who engage in excessive work behaviour continue to attract the

attention of researchers. Most research in this field adheres to quantitative methodolo-

gies aligned to the addiction or trait paradigms and largely focuses on correlates and

consequences of such behaviour. However, within this literature, empirically based

understandings of the factors that propel individuals to engage in excessive work patterns

are sparse. Resting on socio-cultural theories of work, we adopt a novel approach to this

field of enquiry and examine the genesis of excessive working using a qualitative

methodology. We use discourse analysis to comparatively explore data from a sample of

twenty-eight workers comprising excessive and non-excessive workers. Our study

identified the roles of family of origin, educational experience, and professional norms as

clear drivers of excessivework patterns. Data to support the dominant addiction and trait

paradigms within this research domain were equivocal. Lifestyle decision-making

differentiated the comparison group from the excessive workers. We discuss our

findingswith reference to theories of workaholism and consider their implications for the

evolution of this field.

Practitioner points

� Organizational culture can strongly influence the emergence of excessive work patterns among
employees. Human resource professionals and organizational leaders are in a position to intervene in

the development and support of work cultures that are conducive to effective work patterns

� Employee selection and assessment procedures should be sufficiently in-depth to gather relevant
information into the personal backgrounds of applicants

� Employee development initiatives should take account of learned work orientations to ensure the
effectiveness of interventions.

The globalized post-industrial society is characterized by a 24-hour economy (Granter,

McCann, & Boyle, 2015) and has led to the normalization of intensive work (Worrall,

Mather & Cooper, 2016). As research suggests figures of 10 per cent and more of the
working population engage in these lifestyles (Andreassen et al., 2014; Sussman, Lisha, &

Griffiths, 2011), understanding the genesis of these types of work practices is now an

important endeavour. Intensive working is commonly captured by the term ‘worka-

holism’which initially arose to describe themindset of individualsmost deeply involved in

*Correspondence should be addressed to Melrona Kirrane, Dublin City University Business School, Collins Avenue, Dublin 9,
Ireland (email:



work-focused lifestyles (Oates, 1971). Over the years, the terminology used to describe

such practices has broadened to include work addiction (Robinson, 1998) excessive

overwork (Andreassen, 2013), obsessive passion for work (Vallerand, Paquet, Philippe, &

Charest, 2010), heavy work investment (Golden, 2014; Snir & Harpaz, 2012), work
craving (Wojdylo, Baumann, & Karlsson, 2016), and work over-involvement (Lehr, Koch,

& Hillert, 2010)1

Most studies of workaholism to date are quantitative investigations of correlates and

consequences of workaholism. One of the strongest outcomes of suchwork has been the

positioningof the rootof suchworkingpatterns squarelywithin the individualworker (van

Wijhe, Schaufeli & Peeters, 2010). However, work patterns are acknowledged to emerge

from an interactive process that occurs between the individual and their environment

(Osipow, 1990). While theorists have signalled the important role of socio-cultural
processes in understanding intensive work patterns (Mazzetti, Schaufeli, & Guglielmi,

2014; Porter, 1996; Snir & Harpaz, 2006, 2012), field studies within this domain remain

disappointingly limited (Sussman, 2012). In this study, we build on socio-cultural theory

(SCT) which highlights dynamic and situation-specific elements of the individual that

together lead to vocational outcomes (Bandura, 1999). Taking a qualitative approach, we

explore theautobiographical accountsof thegenesisofexcessiveworkingpatternsamong

a sample of excessive workers. We compare their accounts with those of a comparison

group of non-excessive workers drawn from the same context. In this way, we provide a
solid foundation for understanding the intense career pathways of such workers.

Theoretical background to workaholism research

Research in the field of workaholism has been dominated by the addiction model and the

trait theory approach (Sussman, 2012). The addiction model considers the phenomenon

to be an irresistible inner drive to work excessively hard (Andreassen & Pallesen, 2016),

and it is described as a progressive, compulsive, potentially fatal disease (Porter, 1996;
Robinson, 1998). Despite the absence of evidence that excessive working shares

psychophysiological characteristics of established definitions of addiction (McMillan, O’

Marsh, & Brady, 2001; Porter, 1996) and its exclusion from the DSM-5 (American

Psychiatric Association, 2013), many researchers continue to draw on the addiction

model of workaholism as a conceptual framework for their work (Andreassen, Griffiths,

Hetland, & Pallesen, 2012; Griffiths, 2011). Such studies typicallymeasurework addiction

quantitatively, and although some recent promising additions have been made

(Andreassen et al., 2012; Schaufeli, Shimazu, & Taris, 2009), the most widely used
measure, the Work Addiction Risk Test (Robinson, Post, & J. Khakee, 1992), is not

regarded as rigorous, rendering research based on it vulnerable to criticisms (Andreassen

et al., 2012; Bowler, Patel, Bowler, & Methe, 2012; Flowers & Robinson, 2002; Sussman,


A further theoretical paradigm deployed widely in this field is the trait theory

approach. This perspective construes excessive working, associated with traits such as

neuroticism, conscientiousness, narcissism, and perfectionism (Andreassen et al., 2012;

Clark, Lelchook, & Taylor, 2010) as a manifestation of a ‘stable individual difference
characteristic’ (Burke, 2004, p. 421) comprising the psychological dimensions of high

1 For the sake of parsimony and consistency with previous literature,
the term ‘workaholism’ will be used in this article, but should
not be taken to necessarily imply agreement with the addiction model of
these work patterns.

236 Melrona Kirrane et al.

work involvement, high drive, and low work enjoyment (Spence & Robbins, 1992).

Although this model has been criticized for its lack of conceptual rigour (Harpaz & Snir,

2003; Robinson, 2001; Scott, Moore, & Miceli, 1997), considerable research continues to

rely on it as a platform for investigation (Burke, Matthiesen, & Pallesen, 2006; Clark et al.,
2010). Unfortunately, resultant isolated correlations have not led to the development of a

coherent theoretical framework (Harpaz& Snir, 2003; Kanai,Wakabayashi, & Fling, 1996;

McMillan, Brady, O’Driscoll, & Marsh, 2002; Mudrack & Naughton, 2001).

While these two theoretical perspectives have driven research streams which have

provided information on the correlates and consequences of intensive work practices

(Baruch, 2011; Giannini & Scabia, 2014; Ng, Sorensen, & Feldman, 2007; Robinson, 2013;

Sussman, 2012), each shows distinct weaknesses and leaves the question of the aetiology

of workaholism empirically unanswered (Quinones & Griffiths, 2015; Spurk, Hirschi, &
Kauffeld, 2016). Moreover, these approaches are characterized by positioning worka-

holism entirely within the individual. Holding some promise of greater refinement of the

genesis of excessive work patterns are studies that explore the contribution of other

factors to this behaviour. These include unsatisfied needs (Burke, 2004; van Beek, Taris, &

Schaufeli, 2011), cognitions (Graves, Ruderman, Ohlott & Weber, 2012), social learning

(Burke, 2001), family dynamics (Chamberlin & Zhang, 2009; Robinson, 2013), and

organizational culture and climate (Keller, Spurk, Baumeler, &Hirschi, 2016; Johnstone&

Johnston, 2005; Mazzetti et al., 2014). In general, such elements have been treated as
peripheral within the dominant research paradigms, and the causal influence of some

have, at times, been explicitly denied (e.g., Robinson, 1998). Although the importance of

these issues has been highlighted (McMillan, O Driscoll, & Burke, 2003), they remain

underexplored in empirical work and their role in the phenomenon of excessive work

patterns remains tentative (Andreassen, 2014; McMillan et al., 2003; van Wijhe et al.,


Socio-cultural factors and the construal of workaholism

Applying a socio-cultural perspective to understanding the origin of workaholism

represents a rich starting point in research on excessive working patterns. The socio-

cultural approach to understanding behaviour which recognizes the role of norms,

customs, and values of the general population has demonstrated that work norms,

attitudes, and practices are influenced bymultiple layers of socio-cultural factors (Kanai &

Wakabayashi, 2004; Lantolf, 2000). At the broadest level is national culture which has a

singular effect on howpeople construe themselves atwork (Brewer&Chen, 2007; Gahan
& Abeysekera, 2009; Triandis, 1990). This effect is perhaps best illustrated by the

phenomenon known as ‘karoshi’, a term coined by Sugisawa andUehata (1998) to refer to

the particular Japanese phenomenon of death or permanent disability caused by

cardiovascular problems, mediated by excessive work and stress. In Japan, work is

regarded as an element of living in that one is supposed to live in accordance with the

order of society (Ishiyama & Kitayama, 1994; Kanai &Wakabayashi, 2004). Psycho-social

factors such as a social value system that exhorts perseverance and the concept of

‘ganbaru’, which means to suffer in silence and to endure difficulties, are regarded as
perpetuating the syndrome (Meek, 1999, 2004). Considering these features of Japanese

cultural life fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of the phenomenon of

karoshi and underscores the impact of socio-cultural factors in approaches to work.

A second element of the socio-cultural landscape that has a significant impact onwork

behaviours is the familial context (Lawson, Crouter, & McHale, 2015; Piotrowski &

The origins of excessive work behaviour 237

Vodanovich, 2006; Robinson, 2000). The family of origin influences work behaviours as

values, norms, and expectations for achievement are transferred and internalized via

parent–child relations (Schaie & Willis, 1996). This process is well explained by the
expectancy-value theory of achievement (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). The family an
individual creates themselves as a socio-cultural feature also significantly influences

workplace behaviour (Janoski&Wilson, 1995). Involvement inmultiple roles causes ‘spill

over’ which effects behaviour and actions of individuals in both contexts (Arnett, 2014;

Livingston, 2014; Wayne, Casper, Matthews, & Allen, 2013).

Educational systems are an integral feature of the socio-cultural landscape and their

influence on workplace behaviours (Billett, 1998; Konkola, Tuomi-Gr€ohn, Lambert, &
Ludvigsen, 2007), are emphasized in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecologicalmodel of human

development. By introducing pupils to notions of achievement and authority, coping and
time management skills, this social system provides the intellectual and social skills that

children will use to perform roles within the adult world (Haycock, Hart, & Irvin, 1991;

Tomlinson, 2013). In essence, school educates students on how to become fully

functioning and productive members of society and fosters the development of

appropriate work attitudes and habits deemed important for the continued development

of the social world (Goodlad, 1984; Kourilsky & Walstad, 1998).

Finally, organizational norms of behaviour are a well-established feature of the socio-

cultural environment (Rousseau, 2005; Schein, 1985; Schneider, Ehrhart, &Macey, 2013).
Research has established the potent effects of such norms on workplace behaviour

(Hogan &Coote, 2014; Lee & Yu, 2004), and organizations go to great lengths in fostering

the development of performance-enhancing workplace cultures (O’Reilly, Caldwell,

Chatman, & Doerr, 2014). Taking all these factors together, this literature aptly

demonstrates that to fully understand the origin of excessive work patterns, there is

value to be gained from immersing the study of such behaviour within its socio-cultural


Researching workaholism

According to the epistemology of social constructionism, human knowledge does not

result from individuals’ direct perception of ‘brute reality’, but rather is co-constructed in

social interaction and always mediated by language, interpretations, and values (Berger &

Luckmann, 1996; Potter, 1996). As such, equally important as what does cause the

behaviour patterns termed ‘workaholism’ is what people believe causes it, because the

latter will guide how people manage their own career-related behaviour. To date, this
remains unchartered territory in the empirical literature.

To research workaholism as a discursive construction rather than the predetermined,

yet controversial ‘thing’ pursued in other studies, there is valued to be had in exploring the

insights alternative methodologies may provide. Qualitative methods are ideally suited to

tap the naturalistic, everyday language through which this form of behaviour is

constructed in social interaction. Thus, we pose the following question in an attempt

to address this vacuum:Howdo people account for the origin of their working patterns?


We position our study within the philosophical orientation of social constructionism

(Neimeyer, 1993), emphasizing the subjective experiences of actors’ ‘lifeworlds’

238 Melrona Kirrane et al.

(Husserl, 1969; Schutz, 1972). Paying close attention to the language used, we apply

discourse analysis techniques to our data (Antaki, 1994; Billig, 1997; Harvey, Turnquist, &

Agostinelli, 1988), looking beyond the surface of the sentence to identify the pragmatic

social functions that the utterance achieves (Silverman, 2001).We present the data in raw
form to accommodate an expansive interpretation of the participants’ perspectives

(Johnson & Waterfield, 2004; Wimpenny & Gass, 2000).


Two sampling techniques were used in this study. In the first instance, we deployed a

theory-based sampling process, targeting a sample on the basis of their potential

manifestation of our theoretical construct. For this purpose, we concentrated on
members of Workaholics Anonymous (WA), which is a social network specifically

targeted at self-selected workaholics.

The global WA headquarters (based in the United States) agreed to email details about

the study to itsmembers, and a notice requesting participants for the projectwas placed in

the WA monthly newsletter. To achieve generalizability (Mason, 2010), we also used a

purposive sampling strategy which involves using prior research and informed ‘hunches’

to identify the segments of the population likely to hold a unique perspective on the

research topic and directly recruiting from these groups (Bauer & Aarts, 2000). Certain
occupational fields, such as financial services, are known for their demanding workloads

(European Foundation for the Improvement of Living andWorkingConditions, [EFILWC],

2015). To recruit participants for our study, 110 companies were contacted from the

database of an International Financial Services Centre. Human resource specialists of 72

companies (65%) agreed to disseminate to their employees an invitation from the

researchers to participate in a study on work patterns. Due to this recruitment strategy, it

was impossible to calculate the response rate, as the number of people who received our

invitation was unknown. However, our aimwas not to attain a statistically representative
dataset but to provide an in-depth account of the range of ideas present and examinewhat

underlies and justifies them (Gaskell, 2000; Patton, 2002).


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