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The Tipping Point Between Being an Engaged Worker or Workaholic within College Athletics

By Matt Huml, PhD, Cincinnati; Liz Taylor, PhD, Temple; Marlene Dixon, PhD, Texas A&M

Working in college athletics is the ultimate dream for many folks, motivated by: a direct connection to sports, status with an important part of our social zeitgeist, opportunities for travel, rubbing shoulders with local celebrities, or an opportunity to extend your aspirations of being an athlete by working with them. These motivations for work can often translate into motivations to work.

College sport organizations are fortunate to have a passionate workforce that’s willing to do whatever is necessary to maintain their position within the profession, in addition to an eager supply of prospective employees if a replacement is needed. These characteristics can lead to a highly engaged workforce that is enthusiastic about their work, committed to the organization and its goals, and motivated to be successful as an individual and on behalf of the organization. Work engagement has been defined as, “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” This commitment and motivation are beneficial for the organization, as its engaged employees are in lockstep with organizational goals and willing to adjust their responsibilities as needed. It also provides a number of benefits for the employees. Highly engaged employees have shown to report greater job satisfaction, increased organizational commitment, decreased intentions to leave the organization, and a more trusting relationship between employee and employer.

Some workers can take these work motivations too far and become “over-engaged”. They can start to exhibit characteristics of those defined as workaholics. Workaholism is defined by zealous commitment to their work, which includes spending a significant amount of time on work activities, thinking about work regardless of whether they are working or not, and working beyond the expected hours to fulfill the job responsibilities. In April 2020, we wrote in this space about workaholism and burnout among college athletic department employees. 

We were intrigued about the antecedents to workaholism. Given the similar characteristics of work engagement and workaholism, was there a possible tipping point at which an employee could transition from the former to the latter? Previous research had viewed these concepts as opposite ends of the employee behavior spectrum and, while similar in characteristics, not perceived as transitory steps. We viewed this relationship as different, perceiving that the right (or wrong) work environment can give the employee that “nudge” from engaged worker to workaholic. We also believed that college athletics could be the distinct environment needed to test that theory.

College athletics has built a reputation of establishing toxic environments for their employees. Careers in the sport industry have been notorious for expecting extreme and unorthodox working hours, high pressure for success, perilous job security, significant travel, and expectations of employees to prioritize their work over other life commitments. These industry characteristics seem ripe to create a possible pathway to push an engaged employee to become a workaholic.

We also sought out some specific differences related to work engagement and workaholism. First, we believed that having greater job flexibility within college sport would create higher employee work engagement. Providing more job flexibility will allow more people to stay in the work industry or find more opportunities to complete their work when their other life responsibilities may not be temporarily prioritized. Additionally, we believed that job flexibility would create greater employee workaholism. This is under the same belief, that providing more alternatives for employees to complete their work would also allow workaholism to flourish. Second, we also looked at gender differences related to work engagement and workaholism. A lack of women work within the college sport industry, especially beyond front line employees. Because of this lack of female representation, women often feel compelled to work harder to overcome longer odds for staying in the industry. They may compensate by over-engaging in their work. Therefore, we were expecting women to score higher in work engagement and workaholism than men.

Study Parameters

The negative characteristics mentioned above to describe college athletics are perceived to be rampant across the industry. Because of this, we wanted to collect as wide of a net of survey responses as possible. Therefore, we created a comprehensive database of NCAA athletic department employees at the Division I, II, and III levels using online staff directories. We received 4,167 completed surveys; a majority of the respondents (52.2%) worked in NCAA Division I non-Power 5 conference departments while 28.5% worked in Division I Power-5 conference departments, 9.0% worked in Division II, and 10.3% worked in Division III. We collected data from employees across the college sport industry, including athletic administrators, head/assistant coaches, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, event management administration/staff, ticket sales administration/staff, marketing administration/staff, and support staff, including administrative assistants or travel coordinators.

There are established tools for measuring work engagement and workaholism. Our tool for measuring work engagement included questions such as (a) When I wake up in the morning, I feel like going to work, and (b) I feel happy when I am working intensely. Similarly, we used a tool to measure an employee’s workaholism. This scale included example items of (a) I find myself continuing to work after my coworkers have called it quits, (b) I spend more time working than on socializing with friends, on hobbies, or on leisure activities, and (c) I put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines when I work. Lastly, we controlled for flexibility of schedule, which includes measures of employees’ ability to telecommute, work a compressed work week, availability of compensatory time, and availability of a flexible work schedule. We also controlled for participants’ gender.

What We Found & What It Means

As a reminder, the purpose of this study was to see if there is a possible transition for employees from engagement to workaholism, as well as several work and individual factors that may foster or protect against workaholism. 

Overall, we found that work engagement was distinct, yet significantly and positively predictive of workaholism. This means that as each individual’s work engagement increased, so did their workaholism. While this has been discussed as a possibility in past research, this is the first empirical finding connecting the two concepts. Our findings provide support that athletic department employees who exhibit the behaviors that crossover between work engagement and workaholism, such as willingness to work overtime, are at a greater risk to transition from engaged worker to workaholic. Others have hinted this might be possible in a high-demand industry, like college sport, and our study provides further support. This finding is problematic for the sport industry. Others have noted how college athletics can create a toxic work environment for their employees. Athletics has also shown to push their employees to become more and more engaged with their work. Our findings show this mantra is only exacerbating an issue of engaged workers transitioning into workaholics. This finding highlights the importance for sport managers to be aware of the differences between work engagement and workaholism and identify these tendencies within their employees. It’s important to maintain their employees within an engaged state to continue to reap benefits from the positive relationship between work and employee. Pushing their employees to the point of workaholism is a losing proposition for both parties; as burnout increases and retention decreases for the employee, it leads to increased human resource costs and loss of institutional knowledge for the athletic department.

Next, we examined the relationship between job flexibility and work engagement and workaholism. We found a significant, positive relationship between job flexibility and work engagement, but we did not find a relationship between job flexibility and workaholism. This finding is especially promising for the industry. Providing increased job flexibility to athletic department employees creates numerous benefits and no concerns about increasing workaholism. Indeed, job flexibility is a promising work support and provides tools for engaged workers to effectively balance their work and family roles. The onset of COVID has likely required athletic departments to explore options for their employees that give them flexibility on when and where to complete their job responsibilities. It is our belief that athletic departments should further explore these benefits and codify them for easier interpretation for their employees. Athletic departments should encourage their employees to use job flexibility options, while also finding ways to remove barriers for those that are hesitant. Employees can be tentative about using flexible job options because of concerns it will be viewed as not being committed enough to their job, therefore hurting their future career opportunities. These concerns are valid in athletics, which has been known for punishing those perceived to not be working hard enough or not being in their physical office. These perceptions can be especially harmful for women, who may need to use job flexible options for childbirth and societal pressures regarding childcare. If women are the only people using job flexible options, it can create a stigma within the organization and push both men and women to avoid using job flexibility, regardless of the benefits it provides to both employee and employer. Organizations would benefit from vocalizing their support for all employees to use job flexibility and rewarding those who use it. 

We also looked at gender differences related to work engagement and workaholism. Our findings showed that women were more likely to report higher levels of workaholism than men. Women have previously reported greater pressure to acclimate and willingness to sacrifice in the difficult work culture of sport. Our findings support this argument, suggesting that women are more willing to report their work commitment as workaholism. Athletic departments need to create additional support systems for their women employees to deter their workaholic tendencies. This can be accomplished by promoting employees, especially women, who are not being rewarded primarily for overworking. More women need to be provided with promotional opportunities as a way of creating a more equitable workforce. Providing women with greater confidence they will be rewarded for their merits instead of having to over-work as a means of “getting ahead”. On the contrary, men reported higher levels of work engagement compared to women. Some suggest that men have an easier time exhibiting their work engagement than women or that higher pay for men or a greater perceived fit with their jobs can lead to higher levels of engagement. A future study may want to explore this finding more closely.