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Workaholism And Burnout In College Athletics

By Elizabeth A. Taylor, Temple; Matt R. Huml, Cincinnati; Marlene A. Dixon, Texas A&M

The relationship between employee and job can be tenuous. For some, having a job is perceived as a “necessary evil” that allows the individual to acquire basic necessities and dispensable income to pursue desired activities. On the other end of the spectrum, employees can become completely engulfed in their work, investing their very lives in work and work outcomes. Scholars have characterized these (over)dedicated employees as workaholics. For workaholics, their vocation becomes a sizable part of their identity, consuming their day-to-day activities and finding them pursuing tasks beyond their job description. Workaholism can result in positives, such as improved career prospects, but it is also associated with stress, burnout, reduced physical health, and significant negative spillover into workaholics’ families. 

 

Certain careers have been shown to be more susceptible to workaholism, as social norms drive aspiring employees to go beyond expected job assignments to secure employment, while also maintaining their workaholism to continue their employment. Sport is one such career. A culture of sacrifice, extreme pressure to win, and high competition for jobs create conditions ripe for workaholism. Although long-term consequences of workaholism have been studied in other fields, this issue has been understudied within the field of sport, even though many careers within sport are prototypical risk groups. 

 

Workaholism is an important area of study for sport, not only because employees are at high risk but also because of previous studies raising cultural concerns within sport for pushing their employees to increase the saliency of their work commitment. Thus, contributing to this growing area of investigation, the current study examined the relationship among workaholism, employee burnout, and the work–family interface (i.e., work-family conflict and family-work conflict). 

 

Participants

 

The sample consisted of 4,453 intercollegiate athletic department employees; just over half the participants (54.5%) self-identified as male. The majority of the respondents (52.1%) worked in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I non-Power 5 conference departments.  Almost half of the participants (49.6%) were married, and over half of the participants (57.9%) did not have children or responsibilities to care for elderly family members (90.8%). The participant job titles or areas of operation included senior athletic administrator (e.g., Associate/ Assistant Athletic Director), head/assistant coach, coaching support staff (e.g., athletic trainer, strength and conditioning coach), event management, ticket sales, marketing administration/staff, academic advising/life skills, grounds crew/turf management, and support staff (e.g., administrative assistant or travel coordinator).

 

Results and Implications

 

We found the relationship between workaholism and burnout was positive, signaling that as an employee’s level of workaholism increases, so does their level of burnout regardless of levels of work-family and family-work conflict. Additionally, the relationship between workaholism and burnout was positive and partially mediated by work-family conflict. This suggests that the relationship between workaholism and burnout is dependent upon an employee’s level of work-family conflict, and higher levels of work-family conflict may buffer burnout. Both of these findings highlight the negative consequences of employees who are overcommitted to their employment. We also found the participants’ gender and relationship status were significantly correlated with their reported levels of work-family and family-work conflict.

 

There are several important managerial implications that can be gleaned from this study’s results. The significant relationships between workaholism and burnout, as well as the partially mediated relationship including work-family conflict in the current population, suggest the need for intercollegiate athletic departments to set realistic employee expectations in an effort to avoid burnout; unrealistic work expectations work as an antecedent to workaholism. Reducing work expectations reduces workaholism, which, therefore, reduces feelings of burnout. More appropriate work expectations would create a healthier work environment for employees and potentially support the organizational goals of improving efficiency and achieving departmental goals. It also would help cut organizational costs, as reduced burnout would lead to less employee turnover, therefore, reducing the need for recruiting and training new employees. Working toward making a cultural shift away from characteristics leading to employee burnout and toward employee work–life balance would help create more lasting change within the profession. It would be prudent for sport organizations to enforce these expectations during the onboarding process and provide a mentorship program for young professionals who can continue this message of maintaining a healthier work environment. 

 

This investigation is critical within the population of sport employees, as research on those working in sport organizations often focuses on commitment, involvement, or engagement as ways to increase employee work behaviors, rather than examining the negative aspects of workaholism and burnout. However, work engagement is not an infinite positive contribution. Our study builds on a growing field in negative work behaviors that suggest each individual has a threshold where they will no longer perceive their engagement to be positive and will transition to overcommitment, which leads to burnout. Our study lends caution to sport leaders who believe more time commitment from employees is constantly the answer for achieving more success.

 

This focus on reducing feelings of workaholism seems especially important for those employees with increased family obligations, as indicated by the partially mediated relationship between workaholism and burnout through work-family conflict. This significant relationship suggests that intercollegiate athletic department employees may experience greater burnout from their workaholism. Therefore, sport managers would be wise to continue to be supportive of their employees’ family obligations and work to provide more inclusive practices and policies that have demonstrated success in reducing work-family conflict. These include supportive supervisors, autonomy, flexible work schedules, and child/parent care funding. 

 

Gender was significantly correlated with the participants’ perception of work-family and family-work conflict, with male participants experiencing increased levels of work-family and family-work conflict. Previous qualitative research on women in the sport industry suggests that female sport employees are an at-risk group for high levels of work-family and family-work conflict. However, recent research has suggested that male sport employees may face substantial work-family and family-work conflict that is distinct from their female colleagues. The findings of the current study support such results and illustrate the importance of examining both male and female sport employees.

 

Relationship status was also significantly correlated with the participants’ perceptions of work-family and family-work conflict, with those participants who were married or in a long-term relationship experiencing higher levels of work-family and family-work conflict. This finding adds empirical support to previous research suggesting male and female coaches with families may experience higher levels of work-family and family-work conflict.

 

Interestingly, there was not a significant indirect path from workaholism to burnout through family-work conflict to match the partially mediated indirect path through work-family conflict, suggesting that family interfering with work does not help to explain the relationship between workaholism and burnout. This type of behavior would not be surprising in a sample with high levels of workaholism, as workaholics are those employees willing to commit excessive hours to the workplace or accept additional responsibilities. Employees with workaholism have been found to feel a strong emotional drive to continue working, leading to difficulties with disengaging from the workplace, even to engage with family or outside hobbies. Workaholics may be able to indicate they are making sacrifices to family responsibilities to prioritize work (i.e., high levels of work-family conflict), while not allowing family to impact their work responsibilities (i.e., low levels of family-work conflict). 

 

There are also implications for sport management education. Common rhetoric within a sport management classroom advises students to be prepared to work long hours for little to no pay to not only break into the industry but also to maintain employment, as jobs are scarce and applicant pools are constantly growing. Faculty may garner these insights from speaking directly to those professionals on intercollegiate athletic department hiring committees or through communications with alumni about their experiences as young professionals in the industry. These conversations may work to further justify the high commitment levels, unrealistic work expectations, and imbalance of time spent at work with time spent with family or engaging in personal hobbies. As such, the lack of pushback within the field of sport management is likely creating, or at least contributing to, a complicit environment where faculty who could highlight these toxic work environments are simply discussing them as commonplace by pushing their students and graduates to meet these demands.

 

After speaking with a representative from the NCAA’s research arm, we confirmed the sample used in this research is one of the largest data sets on NCAA employee behavior, making the results even more important. Additional research using this dataset is currently under review at several different journals. One forthcoming manuscript explores the relationship between work engagement and workaholism (i.e., Can positive work engagement turn to workaholism?). The second project currently under review explores employee archetypes (i.e., employee profiles).

 

In fall 2019, Drs. Taylor and Huml completed a second round of data collection on employee behaviors, which they are currently sifting through. This data collection was even more fruitful with over 6,000 NCAA athletic department employees participating. If you are interested in learning more about their data collection or the results from your institution, conference, or division, please reach out. One on one or conference wide consultations can be scheduled. 

 

Based on:

Taylor, E. A., Huml, M. R., & Dixon, M. A. (2019). Workaholism in Sport: A Mediated Model of Work-Family Conflict and Burnout. Journal of Sport Management, 33, 249-260. Full paper available here.