At some point, every university student has probably felt the pressure of being as productive and high-achieving as possible. When faced with this pressure, it is difficult to tell whether the productivity demands are unreasonable or whether it is the student who is unreasonable. In this context, a question arises in the student’s mind: Am I working too hard, or am I hardly working?

Though some students recognize when the academic and professional demands are impossible, some are left to believe that they need to work all the time–to the expense of relationships and leisure activities. And although working all the time would, on the first view, be an adaptive and positive strategy, this can result in decreased productivity and burnout [1]. Moreover, loss of personal relationships and a decrease in life satisfaction are possible consequences [1].

This tendency to work very hard has been labelled workaholism or work addiction. More precisely, workaholism has been defined as a drive to work excessively, despite enduring negative physical, social, and emotional consequences [1]. It has been likened to addictions such as alcoholism because, when the individual is in its grips, it is difficult for them to let go. Workaholism manifests itself through an inner drive, independent of external pressures, such as school and necessary work commitments.  

Luckily, there may be some ways to prevent workaholism from developing in the first place. Four ways of preventing workaholism are suggested below, based on research showing that boredom, loneliness, perfectionism, and negative emotions are predictors of workaholism [1].

First, individuals prone to boredom are more likely to develop workaholism. Boredom is related to a lack of intense feelings and a need to turn to external stimulation to fill that void. Turning to external stimulation can, temporarily, give someone the emotional intensity and drive they are lacking. However, in the long run, they would need to get more and more external stimulation to achieve the same intensity. Therefore, the antidote to boredom is to learn to pay attention to one’s emotions and one’s inner world through, for example, meditation [2]. This ability to sit with oneself can reduce the compulsion to escape by keeping busy, thus reducing the chance of developing workaholism.

Second, the experience of loneliness can make someone prone to developing workaholism. What is noteworthy with this particular risk factor is that it is not the number of relationships that matter, but the quality of the relationships. Indeed, someone with many social connections may still feel like they don’t quite belong in any social group or context. On the other hand, someone with only a couple of friends, but with whom the relationships are deep and based in reciprocity, may feel socially supported [3]. Such relationships often offer people positivity in their lives, so they don’t seek harmful stimulation through working beyond their limits.

Third, perfectionistic tendencies are related to development of workaholism. Here, there is a difference between two types of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings (i.e., high personal standards and expectations), and perfectionistic concerns (i.e., over-concern with what people think, focus on the potential of making mistakes, rumination about past mistakes) [4]. Perfectionistic strivings are generally related to positive emotions and better performance outcomes. However, perfectionistic concerns are related to the development of workaholism, burnout, distress, and lower performance. Therefore, rumination over past, potential, and perceived mistakes is likely to make someone work less effectively and for longer periods of time. On the other hand, setting high yet achievable goals for oneself, without spending unnecessary time thinking about mistakes is generally beneficial.

The fourth suggestion is to develop better study and work habits. Paradoxically, being as productive as possible during the time that one is supposed to work leads to less rumination during breaks and leisure time [5]. Having a structure and a well-defined schedule might also reduce uncertainty and avoidance of tasks, and both of these result in less anxiety overall [6;7]. Workaholism entails working long and unproductive hours and ruminating during one’s spare time. Therefore, one way to reduce rumination about work during leisure time is to make the time spent studying as efficient as possible.

These four suggestions are not exhaustive, though they will, hopefully, make students ask what they can reasonably expect of themselves in terms of work and education demands. This is an important question, given that unreasonable demands can lead to exhaustion and loss of productivity.  

Returning to the question at the beginning of the article: when a student is complaining about work, is the student being unreasonable or are the demands unreasonable? In truth, the demands put on a student become unreasonable when the student needs to consistently work overtime to meet them. This, in turn, actually leads to a loss of productivity and significant damage to other aspects of student life over the long-term. Not knowing how to enjoy free time anymore (i.e., boredom), feeling very disconnected from others (i.e., loneliness), being over-concerned with mistakes (i.e., perfectionistic tendencies), and the loss of productivity are some clues to whether the demands placed on a particular student are too great and whether adjustments in one’s work ethic may be beneficial to their mental wellbeing.


By: Ioana Arbone
Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah
Image by: Mike Rohde



[1] Andreassen, C. S. (2013). Workaholism: An Overview and Current Status of the Research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1-11.

[2] Eastwood, J. D., Cavaliere, C., Fahlman, S. A., & Eastwood, A. E. (2007). A Desire for Desires: Boredom and Its Relation to Alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 1035-1045.

[3] Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The Clinical Significance of Loneliness: A Literature Review. Clinical Psychology Review, 695-718.

[4] Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 295-319.

[5] Hill, A. P., & Curan, T. (2015). Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-20.

[6] Carleton, R.N., Mulvogue, K.M., Thibodeau, M.A., McCabe, R.E. Antony,M.M., & Asmundson, G.J.G.(2012). Increasingly Certain about Uncertainty: Intolerance of Uncertainty across Anxiety and Depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 468-479.

[7] Maner, J.K., & Schmidt, N.B. (2006). The Role of Risk Avoidance in Anxiety. Behavior Therapy, 181–189.

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