Identifying Qualitative Inquiry Themes in Research

Identifying Qualitative Inquiry Themes in Research

For this discussion, complete the following:

  • Summarize briefly the article you selected during the library search in this unit’s study.
  • Identify where you found the article.
  • Explain the theme as it is used in the article and as it relates to qualitative analysis.
  • Evaluate the theme you selected.
  • Discuss how you might apply the theme to a qualitative study. Be sure to provide your rationale for selecting the theme.

Design Strategies

Design strategies include the following themes:

  • Naturalistic inquiry.
  • Emergent design flexibility.
  • Purposeful sampling.

Data Collection and Fieldwork Strategies

Data collection and fieldwork strategies include the following themes:

  • Qualitative data.
  • Personal experience and engagement.
  • Empathic neutrality and mindfulness.
  • Dynamic systems.

Analysis Strategies

Analysis strategies include the following themes:

  • Unique case orientation.
  • Inductive analysis and creative synthesis.
  • Holistic perspective.
  • Context sensitivity.
  • Voice, perspective, and reflexivity.

Reference for the article in the attachment

Kirrane, M., Breen, M., & O’Connor, C. (2018). A qualitative investigation of the origins of excessive work behaviour. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 91(2), 235-260. doi:10.1111/joop.12203

Persistent link to where to article was retrieved

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).


Machlowitz’s (1980) measure of working patterns was administered via email in the

invitation to participate in the study. The intent of this element of the research process

was not to reify these individuals as ‘workaholics’, but to purposively select people who indicated that they exemplify characteristics of the construct of ‘workaholism’.

There are 10 items in this measure; a sample item is ‘Do you dread retirement?’

Deployed in a number of studies (Doerfler & Kammer, 1986; Greenberg, 2002; Kilburg,

Nathan, & Thoreson, 1986), with items derived from empirical work rather than a

priori theoretical assumptions, each behaviourally based item on this measure has a

‘yes/no’ response option whereby ‘yes’ responses warrant one point, and ‘no’

responses warrant zero points. A score above eight points is deemed to represent

workaholic behaviour (Machlowitz, 1980). A total of 146 people responded to the questionnaire, 22 (15%) of whom were identified as workaholics by meeting the cut-off

point established by Machlowitz (1980). This figure is within the range of international

norms regarding the prevalence of workaholism (Doerfler & Kammer, 1986; Freimuth,

Waddell, Stannard, Kelley, & Kipper, 2008; Sussman, 2012). Respondents who agreed

and were available to be interviewed about their work patterns formed this subsample

The origins of excessive work behaviour 239

of the study. In order to fully understand the particular conceptions of the origins of

excessive working, a comparative sample was generated by interviewing willing

respondents who did not meet the criteria for ‘workaholism’ according to Machlowitz

(1980). This afforded the opportunity for the research question to be richly explored and extensively examined according to the tenets of SCT. The sum of the research

strategies deployed ensured ontological integration of the nature of social life was

achieved (Guarino, 1997).


The sample ultimately consisted of twelveworkaholics, four ofwhomwereWAmembers,

and sixteen comparison group members. This sample size is acceptable for discourse analytic studies and is well within the ranges identified by Charmaz (2006), Bertaux

(1981), Morse (2000) and Mason (2010). Of the workaholic sample, three were female

(two members of WA and one general population workaholics [GPW]) and the sample

was aged between 32 and 57 years with an average age of 46 years. Ten of this sample

were married/partnered and job titles included management consultant (5), investment

banker (3), IT consultant (2), journalist (1), and medical doctor (1). Of the comparison

group, five were female and the average age was 47 years. Eleven of this group were

married/partnered, three were divorced, and two were single. Job titles included management consultant (11), financial services/banking (3), and IT consultant (2).


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant (See Appendix). The

interview beganwith appropriate ‘warm-up’ questions (Arksey & Knight, 1999) and then

proceeded to explore participants’ conceptions on the evolution of their working lives

with the question: ‘What do you think has influenced your work pattern?’ The interview schedule was employed flexibly to facilitate responsiveness to discursive pathways

introduced by the participant (Gaskell, 2000) and to accommodate issues pertinent to

participants (Gioia, Corley, & Hamilton, 2013).

The researcher did not use the word ‘workaholic’ at any point in the process, and the

neutrality criterion (Guba& Lincoln, 1982)wasmet by the researcher being aware of, and

critical of vocalizations in the research process. Interviews took place either in private

offices at the participants’workplaces or nearby convenient spaces and lasted between60

and 90 min. As WA members were all based in the United States, interviews were conducted with them by telephone. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim

(O’Connell & Kowal, 1995; Potter & Wetherell, 1987). Each hour of interview data took

approximately ten hours to transcribe.

Data analysis

The analysis followed the discursive action model (Edwards & Potter, 1992), and the

interpretative strategywas informed by the threemajor foundations of discourse analysis, namely construction, function, and variability (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). A battery of

discursive features was compiled to aid analysis (Edwards & Potter, 1992; Gee, 1999;

Wetherell, Taylor, & Yates, 2001). Following Guest, Bunce, and Johnson (2006), two

coders separately analysed the data from five interviews. Coding patternswere compared

and a 96% code agreement rating was established (Armstrong, Gosling, Weinman, &

240 Melrona Kirrane et al.

Marteau, 1997). A codebook was then developed using a standard iterative process

(MacQueen, McLellan, Kay, & Milstein, 1998). Codes were refined while reading the

remaining transcripts to accommodate emerging patterns and finally inputted into the

Nvivo software program to facilitate analysis. The analysis met the criteria of trustwor- thiness (Bowen, 2009; Guba & Lincoln, 1982) by ensuring data credibility, transferability,

dependability, and confirmability using the audit trail, coding checks, and peer debriefing.

Trustworthinesswas further reinforced by ensuring all interpretationswere supported by

raw data and accompanied by representative verbatim extracts (Speer & Potter, 2000).

The criterion of soundness (Potter &Wetherell, 1987)was satisfied by our presentation of

analysed texts and demonstration of routes to conclusions. This documentation of

procedures enabled accountability to be examined and the confirmability of claims to be

established (Parker, 2002). In addition, only plausible and insightful analyses were included (Phillips & Hardy, 2002) and it was ensured that all arguments fitted together in

order to provide a coherent reading of the data (Wood&Kroger, 2000). The study thereby

fulfilled the warranting criteria for discourse analysis research (Antaki, Billig, Edwards, &

Potter, 2003; Edwards, 2005).


The data are presented according to the major rift in workaholism literature,

focussing first on the role of internal/dispositional factors, followed by data on the

significance of socio-cultural factors. Findings are displayed according to subgroup

membership (Workaholics [WA members and general population workaholics

{GPW}] and comparison group members (C)). The table below presents a summary of the findings (Table 1).


a) Internal/dispositional antecedents of excessive work patterns


Uniform explanations of the internal causes of excessive working by workaholics were

absent from the data. Instead, accounts fell into three primary categories: addiction,

personal choice, and the influence of personal characteristics. WA members invoked

addiction as its primary cause, whereas personal agencywas the strongest factor reported

in the data of GPW.


i Addiction: WA1 explained her working patterns as a consequence of the hormone

adrenaline, which was defined as an addictive substance:

I am an adrenaline junkie, basically is what I am [WA1]

WA1 constructed a fundamental self-identity as an addict (or in slang terms, ‘junkie’).

This construal of workaholism as an addiction positioned the problem completely within

the self. The label of being an addict was applied without any more detailed construals of

addictive behaviours, symptoms, or signs. Another WA member spoke of his work

patterns using the register of addiction by explicitly comparing work to drugs:

The origins of excessive work behaviour 241

I had what in the programme we call “my stash”. Some people have a stash of drugs, I had a

stash of projects and activities that were never-ending [WA3]

ii Choice: On the other hand, GPW constructed their working style as an active,

volitional choice, and regarded their chosen lifestyle in positive terms. For example,

GPW3 stated:

I like being able to get up at six o’clock in themorning and being able toput in a Fourteen-hour

day [GPW3]

For GPW2, working long hours was positioned as a strategic move rather than an addictive force. It was not a reward in itself but directed at future benefits, which were

assembled in monetary terms.

I never sacrifice things and invest myself in something unless there’s a pay off or

compensation for it somewhere down the road [GPW2]

iii Trait/disposition: Perfectionism was constructed as a driver of behaviour among

workaholics although the emphasis attributed to it differed between participants from

WA and those from the GPW subgroup. For instance, WA4 stated:

There’s this whole pattern I call “the three P’s”. It’s perfectionism, which leads to paralysis

which leads to procrastination. So perfectionism drives a lot of things. [WA4]

Assembling this chain reaction of events as a ‘pattern’ established it as a general law of

behaviour. This interviewee positioned himself in a powerless stance in relation to perfectionism,whichwas afforded agency by installing it as the grammatical subject (e.g.,

‘perfectionism drives’). Perfectionism was also compiled as a behavioural factor among


However, it was discussed in less absolute terms:

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Other people here say that I am one but I don’t know if it is true.

Once I’m satisfied, and once it’s good enough for me, then I’ll move on to the next thing. But

there’s a certain point at which too much perfection gets in your way [GPW8]

This participant stated that others classified him as a perfectionist but that he did not

fully identify with this characterization. He equated perfectionism with an inefficient

Table 1. Summary of findings


mechanisms of

work behaviour Workaholics Comparison group

Internal factors 1. Addiction (WA)

2. Perfectionism (WA)

3. Personal choice (GPW)

4. Perfection strivings (GPW)

1. Personal maturation

2. Boundary management

3. Value-driven choice



5. Stressful family of origin dynamics

6. Intenseeducational norms

7. Pervasive organizational norms

8. National culture

1. Proactive adjustment

2. Supportive family of origin

3. Created family

4. Constructive educational experience

5. Alternating work norms

242 Melrona Kirrane et al.

inability to ‘move on’. While he demanded high standards, he claimed that his ability to

reach satisfaction with a completed task made him, at most, ‘a bit of’ a perfectionist.

b) Socio-cultural attributions for work patterns


A rich body of socio-cultural data emerged pertaining to the influence of family

background, educational history, organizational/work context, and cultural context on

work behaviours. These elements speak strongly to the role of environmental factors in

encouraging the development of certain work behaviours.


i Family background: No reference was made to the role of created family in the

development of excessive work patterns – family of origin was invoked instead. For example:

So even from an early age I was working. My father was a holy terror for work, work, work,

work. He’d kickme out of bed at seven o’clock on a Saturdaymorning – thatwas theway Iwas

brought up. I would always have worked [GPW7]

This participant presentedhimself asworking demandinghours fromanearly age. This

was positioned as not due to his own nature or personality, but rather due to his father’s

influence. The participant presented himself as agentless in determining the amount of

work he did as a child by employing verbs that situate him in a passive position. Being

‘kicked out of bed’ established his father’s control over his activity. His father’swork ethic

was couched in negative terms, and the home context was cast as creating his lifelong working behaviour through the extreme case formulation ‘Iwould always haveworked’.

An inevitability of the development of excessive behaviour emerged in the data fromWA3:

Both my parents are nicotine and coffee addicts. I just grew up in a very disturbed home. My

momhas got a lot of issues like anxiety andmy dad’s a littlemore on the control side of things.

So between the two of them, it’s like I’m constitutionally wired for addiction. [WA3]

WA3 used the ‘addict’ term to categorize his parents. This categorization was

construed as a statement of fact through the lack of hedging. The modifier ‘just’ was

employed to simplify the construction of his family context as disorderly. Terms such as

‘issues’ and ‘anxiety’ established his mother as psychologically unstable and built up this

extract as a legitimate fact.

As a result, he regarded himself as being inevitably addictive in his behaviour thus

legitimizing his construction of his work addiction as being created in the family home.

WA1 explained her work behaviours as developing in childhood in response to the low-status position she believed she held within her family unit:

Both us girls – it was perfectly clear that wewere second rate. I was called the runt of the litter,

the cowardly one, and my way out of that was that I was clever and I did well at school. That

was the one area where I got some approval from my father. [WA1]

This participant linked her currentwork orientations to her childhood desire to escape from paternal taunting and her humble familial status. The clarity of her standing within

the family was built up through the use of the adjective ‘perfectly’. Thus, trying to gain

The origins of excessive work behaviour 243

approval from the family contextwas positioned as causing her to develop excessivework


ii Education: Educational experiences were also construed as factors that influenced

work practices. GPW1 offered:

I alwaysworked very hard at school. I used to get just two or three hours of sleep at night. . . so yes Iwould say thatmy school environment has influencedmy currentwork pattern. [GPW1]

This participant construed herself as consistently being a hard-working student,

through the extreme case formulation of ‘always’. The negative effects of working hard

were constructed as leading to physiological costs of not sleeping which were built up

through specific temporal details. These details functioned to construe a fresh perceptual

memory. Working hard and sleeping for a fraction of the night were established as her

typical behaviour. GPW4 described the evolution of intensive work patterns as emerging

as a result of his time in university:

Iworked very hard at university. Iwas there on a running scholarship so Iwas getting up at five

thirty in the morning, training with the team, going to an eight thirty class, coming back and

studying for a couple of hours, training until six then going to a job. So I’d been working very

hard for a number of years. [GPW4]

iii Professional norms: Performance expectations were also invoked as leading to

excessive work patterns. WA2 said:

My experience in the corporateworld is thatworkaholism is extremely insidiouswithin it. It is

a disease that is rewarded in this culture. [WA2]

This participant positionedworkaholism as an illness thatwas incentivized in herwork

experience. The global term (‘corporate world’) was employed to construct the effect of

the broader context which suggested that these challenges transcended any one individual. This perspective received further endorsement from WA4:

This is an incredibly workaholic place to work. 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following morning is not

unusual. You’re expected to put your private life second to your work so I don’t suppose that

has helped in my pattern of workaholism. [WA4]

The prominence of the ‘you’ personal pronoun externalized workaholism from the

participant and situated it within the work context. Prioritizing work over one’s private

life was assembled as being a requirement of the job. The role-talk of GPW6 also

normalized and externalized this behaviour to the work environment:

I work in an investment bank and it is an intense regime. Everybody else, your peer group, is

doing the same number of hours so you don’t really see it as a problem [GPW6]

iv Culture: Differences in cultural context were also positioned as leading to different

work patterns. For example:

In America they want people to succeed and excel – it’s a great system and so I’ve sort of

adopted that mentality [GPW5]

GPW5 described himself as flexibly aligning himself with this ethos, although he hedged this statementwith themodifier ‘sort of’. National culturewas thus depicted as an

issue of the mind, affecting work behaviour by instilling a worldview or ‘mentality’.

244 Melrona Kirrane et al.

Comparison group

a) Internal/dispositional antecedents of excessive work patterns


Themost notable feature in this data was the role of personal agencywith respect towork

behaviours. Further elements identified as explanatory features of work practices

included commitment to retaining work–nonwork boundaries and significant life incidents which led to a re-ordering of priorities.


i Personal decision-making: The issue of proactive choice regarding work patterns

emerged in the data from this subgroup. Themanner in which this was done included

implementing time boundaries as described by C12:

I do my work from nine until six and then get out and do something else with my life. [C12]

Another strategy involved acting on the basis of valued goals. For example:

I decided to come off the seniority treadmill because they really do expect your heart and your

soul and your life to get anywhere. [C5]

Evident in the prominence of first-person phrases such as ‘I decided’, this participant

was constructed as having a strong sense of agency in relation to her work pattern. The

intolerance of below-par performance was established through extreme case formula-

tions such as ‘heart, soul, life’. The prominence of the ‘you’ personal pronoun further

established this as a law external to this particular context (Potter, 1996). Members of this subgroup also construed their work pattern as emerging from rational decision-making.

For example:

I’m inclined to overwork by nature but I took a decision that I wasn’t going to do it. [C4]

This participant constructed altering work patterns as overriding natural tendencies.

This was worked up through the verb ‘took’ which positioned her as being in control of

her work pattern. The prominence of the ‘I’ personal pronoun constructed a strong sense of agency. The absence of hedging assembled this extract as a statement of fact (Edwards

& Potter, 1992). Adjusting habitualized work patterns was construed as requiring some

achievable effort:

You have to be determined, to stick to and once you do that, you get back into it. It’s all about

habit, really. I didn’t find it too difficult. [C6]

ii Perseverance: This latter quote from C6 also demonstrates how being committed to

the new work behaviour was worked up as a necessary requirement, given the

habitual nature of work patterns. The prominence of the general ‘you’ pronoun

distanced this construal from his situation and thus positioned it as a universal law

(Edwards & Potter, 1992). iii Proactive adjustment: Personal tragedy was also worked up to explain work

behaviours. C1 said:

The origins of excessive work behaviour 245

I have a sister who died about eleven years ago and almost the last thing she said to mewas to

‘stop doing what I have done’, which was work too hard. That had a big impact on me, a big

impact. [C1]

The effect of this event on C1 was constructed as a physical impression through

the repetition of the phrase ‘a big impact’. The authenticity of this account

was assembled through the temporal details and the direct speech quote from her


iv Maturation: Timely personal development was invoked to explain work behaviours in a number of ways. Some participants referred to age-related changes in personality

and preferences:

I’m just not as ambitious as I was when I was younger. [C4]

The manner in which ambition manifested itself was constructed as subject to

variation, and dependent on age rather than it being a central feature of her personhood.

Similarly, C3 described her approach to work as having changed over time:

I used to get hooked on the adrenaline of crisis management like lots of people but I prefer a

more planned approach. [C3]

This behavioural dynamic was generalized to the majority of people which

constructed her argument as less extreme. However, she established herself as getting

tired of this approach and a sense of agency was worked up through the prominence of

the ‘I’ personal pronoun.

v Available resources: Approaches to work were also attributed to energy resources

rather than personality characteristics:

My dog had puppies – they’d be fast asleep for hours and then they go mad and then their

energy levels drop – so I think I’m a bit like that. I like the excitement or the buzz of a deadline

so I don’t get bored but I get exhausted from it. [C9]

The movement from the analogy of the puppies to this participant’s work pattern was

established through the switch from ‘they’ to the ‘I’ personal pronoun. The excitement of

working against the clock was positioned as a way of working that this participant found enjoyable but tiring.

b) Socio-cultural attributions for work patterns


A broad range of socio-cultural factors were supplied to further explain work practices,

including family environment, educational experience, and organizational norms.


i Family background: Both family of origin and created family were worked up as

influencing work patterns. With reference to the former, C2 said:

There was never any pressure put on us at home to go to third level, but there was this kind of

unwritten understanding between myself and my parents that you work to the best of your

ability. [C2]

246 Melrona Kirrane et al.

In this extract, performance expectations were positioned as an implicit agreement

between C2 and her parents. There was a switch from the ‘I’ personal pronoun to the

‘you’ pronoun which distanced her working behaviour from this agreement and established it as an external law (Potter, 1996). Features of the created family were also

identified as effecting work patterns:

I think it is easier to put in more hours when you don’t have a family. I don’t ever see myself

working any longer than nine to five or half five. [C5]

Working long hours and having a family were construed as difficult and

problematic to combine. C5 switched from the ‘I’ personal pronoun to the ‘you’

pronoun which functioned to distance this statement from her personal philosophy

and constructed these contextual conditions as fact (Edwards & Potter, 1992).

Another participant described how features of their created family led to an alteration

in work patterns:

I just have better things to be doing just nowwithmy son – he is twentymonths now and I just

want to spend time with him and spend time with just the family at home. [C7]

In this extract, engagement in family activities was positioned as more desirable than

work. The modifier ‘just’ was repeated four times which functioned to attribute the

change in the work style to a single aspect of his life, namely fatherhood. A further family

feature cited as influencing work patterns was marital disharmony. C10 said:

I used towork long hours to escapemy relationshipwithmywife. I think that was a symptom

of a marriage breaking down, more than anything else. [C10]

C10 positioned his excessivework patterns as a relief from an unsatisfactory home life.

The extreme case formulation, ‘more than anything else’, positioned this as an accurate

interpretation of his behaviour. Medical terminology (‘a symptom of’) was used to construct excessive working as being a reaction to and indicative of a failing marriage.

ii Educational experiences: Participants construed lessons learned in the school

environment as core to their approach to work:

My school environment taught me to be fairly disciplined and taught me how to work hard. I

suppose you could say discipline and hardwork – that’s what school taught me to bring to the

job. [C11]

Working hard was positioned as an activity that was learned, through the repetition of

the verb ‘taught’. Discipline and hard work were construed as being learnt prior to

entering the workplace.

iii Organizational norms: Respondents reported on the role of different norms across

diversework environments and their corresponding adaptation to them. For example,

C13 said:

I always change the way I work depending on the job I’m in. I think that’s just the way you

evolve through your jobs. [C13]

This approach toworkwas expanded beyond his personal circumstances through the

use of the generic terms ‘you’ and ‘your’. These terms externalized this construal fromher

specific case and constructed it as a universal tendency (Potter, 1996). Particular work

The origins of excessive work behaviour 247

roles and departments within organizations were also construed as leading to specific

work patterns. C14 proffered:

Oh I worked very long hours there. It was eight o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock at

night, five days a week. It was very heavy going . . .but I was trying to get my feet under the table properly and trying to understand what was going on. [C14]

The length of working hours was emphasized and tied into a particular workplace.

The reason for working a 75-hr week was clearly constructed as a necessary

requirement for becoming familiar with a new job. This was built up through the verbs

‘struggling’ and ‘trying’, as well as the idiomatic phrases ‘to get on top of things’ and ‘get my feet under the table properly’. However, he was construed as being in control

of his work behaviour through the personal pronouns ‘I’ (Edwards & Potter, 1992).

Geographic location and national culture were also construed as relevant in relation to

work patterns:

Some of the American companies expect their employees to work crazy hours, but that’s not

for me. My company is British-based and it’s not expected. Japanese and American firms have

such a different work ethic. [C8]

National culture was positioned as leading to an obligation to work long hours

which was departicularized from individuals to pervasive expectations about work


Epilogue In presenting this analysis, it is important not to establish a false dichotomy between

internal and external modes of explanation, as the two frequently interacted in

participants’ discourses to form complex, multifaceted accounts. For instance, while

speaking about the societal factors assembled to explain excessive working practices,

WA4 stipulated that acknowledging these influences did not amount to a renunciation of

personal responsibility:

Actually I think the problem is in me. I don’t blame society – it’s up to me to regulate my

behaviour. It’s not them outside. Why should anybody outside help me regulate my own

behaviour? I’m the one that has to do it. I don’t blame society for my workaholism, I take full

responsibility for it. I’m not a victim [WA4]

Another example of the interweaving of social context and individual causality lay in

the commentary of WA3:

My dad’s a work addict. I think he has that going on back in his ancestral realm. I think there’s

like an inter-generational heritage of addiction inmy family. Iwould consider one ofmy sisters

to be work-addicted. So for me, I feel like it’s a mixture. I was probably both genetically and

psychologically predisposed for the disease and then I was around people who also had that

behaviour. [WA3]

WA3 unambiguously categorized his parents as addicts and a long-standing history of

family addiction was clearly constructed. By classifying his sister as a work addict, he

emphasized the causality of the common family environment. Genetic and social explanations for his addictive tendencieswere notmutually exclusive, but they co-existed

in one coherent account.

248 Melrona Kirrane et al.


This paper makes an original contribution to the workaholism literature, expanding it theoretically, conceptually, methodologically and practically. The novel employment of a

qualitative social constructionist approach allowed the research to move beyond a reified

view of workaholism to empirically explore its genesis as a socio-cultural construct. Our

inclusion of a comparison group ofworkers provided a further opportunity to identify the

role of socio-cultural factors in development of excessive work patterns. Together these

approaches allowed the study identify rich and novel insights into how those who work

excessively explain, justify, and account for their behaviour

Data from theworkaholic group revealed that they understood the origin of their work patterns to include many socio-cultural features such as family background, educational

experience, and professional norms. While the role of family systems (Robinson, 2001;

Stevens-Smith, 1994) and professional norms (Mazzetti et al., 2014) have been identified

in the workaholism literature, our findings elaborate the complex influential pathways of

these factors. Notably, our identification of the impact of the educational environment on

the development ofwork patterns is a new addition to this domain of enquiry and signals a

new trajectory for research in this domain.Weencourage researchers to considerWigfield

and Eccles’ (2000) expectancy-value theory of achievement as a vehicle to further explore the role of educational experiences in the development of work behaviours. The related

theoretical frameworks of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1999), and locus of control (Rotter,

1966), along with theories focused on reasons for engaging with certain activities such as

flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014), self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2010), and

self-worth theory (Covington, 1998) may also be helpful frameworks to guide future

research in this area.

The personality trait of perfectionism was also referenced in the data of workaholics.

While this is consistent with certain findings from the trait theory literature (e.g., Clark et al., 2010; Liang & Chu, 2009), other documented personality links (e.g., the ‘Big Five’

[Andreassen, Hetland, & Pallesen, 2010; Burke et al., 2006; ]) were not intuited by this

sample. This suggests that there is value to be had in taking an expansive consideration of

the role of traits in the emergence of workaholism. The role of addiction also appeared in

the findings and the addiction framework has long been invoked to explain workaholism

(Andreassen et al., 2012;Griffiths, 2011). However, only thosewhoweremembers ofWA

referenced addiction, all of whom had previously attended other addiction programmes.

As such, their identity as addicts extended beyond the work environment to capture a pervasive mode of relating to the world (Cain, 1991; Carnes, Murray, & Charpentier,

2005). It is interesting to note that these individuals did not mention related facets of

addiction such as withdrawal symptoms, increased tolerance, brownouts, or blackouts

(Walters, & Gilbert, 2000). In these data, perhaps the status of ‘work addiction’ may have

been more rhetorical than ontological.

Addictionwas not referenced by any other workaholic in the study despite all meeting

the same criteria for categorization as a workaholic. Instead, GPW evinced personal

choice, the antithesis of addiction, as an explanation for their excessive work patterns. This choice led to need satisfaction in terms of a sense of accomplishment and achieving

valued rewards, outcomes aligned with Vallerand et al.’s (2010) concept of harmonious

passion. While van Beek et al. (2011) identified ‘engaged workaholics’ among random

users of an Internet site, our study confirms that controlled and autonomous motivation

indeed drives behaviour of excessive workers (Van den Broeck et al., 2011). Given the

differences in explanations of excessive work patterns from workaholics, diverging

The origins of excessive work behaviour 249

according to membership and non-membership of WA, our data query the explanation of

workaholism provided by the addiction paradigms.

While the comparison group name-checked many of the same factors as explanations

for their work patterns, certain differences were notable in their accounts such as their inclusion of created family as an influencing feature of their work patterns. Most

interesting was the broad articulation of personal agency in conforming to or rejecting

socio-cultural features of work environments such as professional norms (Bandura, 1999;

Savickas, 2008). Explicit in their descriptions were decisions to abandon previous

excessive work patterns, begging the question whether the research had uncovered

‘former workaholics’. While studies have identified routes to recovery from workaholic

behaviours (Bakker, Demerouti, Oerlemans, & Sonnentag, 2013), our findings suggest

that supporting personal agency in this regard may be a productive avenue of future research.

An important finding of this research is the identification of the multidimensional

nature of lay explanations of workaholism. Traditionally, attribution theory positions

internal and external attributions as oppositional: Heider (1958) proposed a ‘hydraulic’

relation between internal and external attribution, such that the more there is of one, the

less of the other. However, research examining explanations offered spontaneously in

natural conversation suggests that people understand the world in terms of ‘intuitive

interactionism’: single-cause explanations in terms of either internal or external factors are rare (Antaki, 1994). This is borne out in the current data. For instance, accounts of

workaholism were at one point attributed to the internal trait of perfectionism, but were

then also attributed to the influence of parenting and schooling. Similarly, research on lay

understandings of substance addiction confirms that people invoke multiple explanatory

factors (including biology, character, emotion, the social environment, learning, and drug

properties) and explicitly site the cause of addiction in the interactions between them

(Folkman, 2013; Meurk, Carter, Hall, & Lucke, 2014). This study, where WA participants

identified external intervening factors in their ‘addiction’, indicates that lay understand- ings of workaholism are similarly multifactorial.

Taken together, our findings reveal a rich tapestry of factors beyond the boundaries of

the trait and addiction paradigms that illuminate the genesis of workaholism. The results

expand our understanding of the manner in which socio-cultural processes affect

workaholism (Kanai & Wakabayashi, 2004) and support family systems theory (Stevens-

Smith, 1994), socio-cultural theory (Lantolf, 2000) and theories of personal agency

(Bandura, 1999) as vehicles for understanding the origins of workaholism. Moreover, our

findings endorse the work of Mazzetti, Schaufeli, Guglielmi, and Depolo (2016) and Johnstone & Johnston (2005) who identified the important role of the work environment

in encouraging excessive work patterns.

Our findings are directly related to the methodological approach adopted which was

formative in revealing the complex, layered understandings that characterize natural

thinking. The productive outcomes of this study suggest that studies of workaholism

should revisit its early roots in qualitative research (Machlowitz, 1980). Analysis of other

cultural material, such as popular psychology texts, mass media, or Internet chatrooms,

would shed further light on social constructions of workaholism. Another avenue to pursue is an analysis of attitudes to excessive work in company reports, mission

statements and other corporate literature (e.g., Craig & Amernic, 2011), and an

ethnographic account of the informal processes through which these attitudes are

transmitted to employees.

250 Melrona Kirrane et al.


While acceptable sample sizes in qualitative research vary according to the method-

ology deployed (Bertaux, 1981; Charmaz, 2006; Mason, 2010; Morse, 2000), a larger

sample size in future studies would be desirable. Stronger response rates could be encouraged by direct organizational endorsement of the research (Anseel, Lievens,

Schollaert, & Choragwicka, 2010), site visits by researchers (Couper, Traugott, &

Lamias, 2001; Fricker & Schonlau, 2002), and completion incentives (Rose, Sidle, &

Griffith, 2007; Yu & Cooper, 1983). While qualitative research does not aim to be

statistically representative, diversifying the sample by people who have different

‘stakes’ in the issue would provide for a more holistic overview of the topic.

Researchers could consider using strategies to enhance response rates such as

emphasizing the value of the research, consent pre-screening, and social network approaches as suggested by Cycyota and Harrison (2006). In this study, participants

were mostly drawn from the corporate sphere. It would be interesting to explore how

excessive investment in work is construed in occupational groups where roles are

characterized by more manual or emotional labour. It is also important to note that this

study attracted a disproportionate number of male participants. This meant that the

study afforded limited insight into the gendered nature of working lives (Majeed,

Forder, Kendig, & Byles, 2015; Sabelis & Schilling, 2013). This matter should be

addressed by future research, with an acknowledgement that ‘work’ is not restricted to remunerated employment outside the home. Future longitudinal research would also

be useful in disentangling the trajectory through which people’s self-understanding

moves from hard worker to work addict. Finally, while our study explored current

work patterns, our question regarding the derivation of work behaviours necessarily

required participants to engage in recall. Evidence indicates that error and bias are not

unusual in memory retrieval (Shiffman et al., 1997). Future research should use

‘cognitive interviewing’ methods that are sensitive to the workings of autobiographical

memory in order to improve recall accuracy (Means, Habina, Swan, & Jack, 1992)2 . Nevertheless, in accordance with the principles of social constructionism (Burr, 2015),

the factual accuracy of these memories may be of secondary importance to their

narrative significance: the causal attributions revealed in our research are those that

individuals recruit in actively constructing their personal biography. It is these personal

constructions that guide individuals’ understandings of, emotional responses to and

attempts to change their work practices. As a result, for researchers and practitioners

interested in excessive working, understanding lay beliefs about the origins of work

practices, irrespective of their factual accuracy, is equally (or even more) critical than understanding the empirically substantiated causal processes.


Lay accounts of a social phenomenon are of great empirical value, not only for their

detail but also for the validity conferred by accounts of first-hand experience of a

phenomenon. As the first study to directly explore lay constructions of workaholism,

this research offers an important contribution to the literature. People’s accounts of the many external forces that influenced their working lives challenge the dominant

individualistic approaches to workaholism. Correspondingly, the retention of a sense of

2We are grateful to one anonymous reviewer for pointing out this issue.

The origins of excessive work behaviour 251

agency challenges a totalistic view of work patterns as entirely dictated by economic and

political powers. The academic literature on workaholism should heed the wisdom of

‘workaholics’ themselves and seek to forge theoretical frameworks that acknowledge

the diversity of factors involved and enlighten how they interconnect in the genesis of excessive work habits.


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Received 30 August 2017; revised version received 8 January 2018

The origins of excessive work behaviour 259

Appendix : Interview schedule


This study is investigating work patterns. We will be asking you questions about your approach to work. There are no right or wrong answers so please feel free to answer at



1. Could you please tell me what a typical day at work is like for you?


� What hours do you typically work? Start/finish? � Week-end / holiday work? 2. What do you think drives you or motivates you to work the way you do?


� What aspects, if any, of your character do you think influence your work pattern? � What aspects, if any, of your personal circumstances do you think may have influenced

your work pattern?

� home environment � school or college attended � work environment � society

Extra question for Workaholics Anonymous members

� Why did you join Workaholics Anonymous?

260 Melrona Kirrane et al.

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