An interview with Marcello Russo and Gabriele Morandin from the University of Bologna

Marcello Russo and Gabriele Morandin

Marcello Russo (left) is Director of the Global MBA at Bologna Business School in Italy and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Department of Management of the University of Bologna. He is also co-director of the Master of Human Resources and Organization at Bologna Business School, Italy. He is an expert on work-life balance, with a focus on what individual strategies and organizational factors can help individuals accomplish their ideal model of work-life balance.

Gabriele Morandin (right) is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Department of Management of the University of Bologna. He is also Director of the First Cycle Degree in Business Administration at the School of Economics and Management, Co-Director of the Master in Human Resources & Organization at Bologna Business School, Italy.

With the time difference between California and Italy, and two interviewees, we decided to conduct this interview online and the topic of discussion was “The Happy Workaholic.” Not sure as to the definition, I posed the simple question of what a Happy Workaholic is…. “Hmm, this a undoubtedly an interesting question… A happy workaholic is a person who enjoys so much what she is doing and has trouble stopping doing so. Many scholars in motivation literature use the term ‘flow’ to indicate the situation when people are so deeply absorbed in what they do that they lose sight of time passing. Well, a happy workaholic is a person experiencing flow but who has problems in stopping it.”

“A happy workaholic is a person experiencing
flow but who has problems in stopping it.”


Marcello and Gabriele made a comparison to streaming binge watching, “Today, we observe many of these behaviors like young people enjoying a TV series and watching all the 24 episodes in one or two days.” They then indicated the drawback of the phenomenon, “This syndrome can become problematic, and also productivity can be at risk. We know from sports that muscles get reinforced not when they are under stress during training, but in the rest time after an exercise session. Same in the workplace, productivity can enhance not with excessive working rhythms but with the moments of reflections and pause that alternate between different performances.”

They then explained what contributes to someone becoming a happy workaholic, “It’s probably a mix of personal and work characteristics. Surely, the lack of self-regulation is an individual characteristic that facilitates the becoming of a happy workaholic. Self-regulation describes our capacity to limit and regulate our instincts, from eating too much to working too hard. So, people with low self-regulation have higher chances of engaging in this type of behaviors.”

“Second, the characteristics of the job. The term happy workaholic, considered in some studies a positive phenomenon, is different from the traditional term “workaholism” as it contains the adjective happy. This means that people assuming these behaviors enjoy what they do, are working on interesting and challenging projects and experience a higher sense of identity from their work.”

“Third, even the organizational culture may reinforce such attitude. To the extent the company requires extra efforts to employees in an entrepreneurial spirit they can extend the time dedicated to work with the feelings of participating in the organizational success.”

To drill down, I asked how happy workaholics impact the workplace, particularly if they are managers. They were grateful for this question as they indicated it captures the real problem associated with happy workaholism stating, “We can become bulimic at work at our own risk. The problem arises when we expect our collaborators to do the same and follow our working pace. This problem is widespread in the workplace when bosses project their own motivations and aspirations on their collaborators, expecting them to have similar motivations and goals. Although this is absolutely a positive and desired state for the team and the organization, this is not always the case. Collaborators have their own life and needs, and they might have the desire to have a more balanced life. This situation should not be problematic, and their decision is important and must be respected. However, this is not always the case and many supervisors, due to their higher status and power at work, force their collaborators to follow similar working hours and pace, often using these people as resources to accelerate their career goals.”

I am leading the Global MBA at Bologna
Business School and sometimes I am
approached by students saying that it is great
to have so many initiatives and leaders coming
to share their vision with us, but they also need
“empty” spaces in their agenda to study, reflect
on what they are learning and also enjoy the
city where they are living. ~Marcello

Lastly, I wanted to see how this applies to the worklife practitioner and asked how the culture of Colleges and Universities encourage people to become happy workaholics, especially people who move into leadership positions. They replied, “One of us was attending last Thursday a seminar with the students in Bologna on a similar topic (how to favor an organizational culture more respectful of people differences) and this was exactly the point made by one of the participants. He said that universities are socializing students to a culture of long working hours by filling their agenda with exams, courses, lectures, workshops, and so forth with very few times of rest during the year. We agree on this comment and we surely need to make all a reflection on this.”

We need to rethink about the value of
free time that, for too many, is
considered a waste of time.
~Shawn Achor

Marcello and Gabrielle wrap the conversation with the following advice, “we all need a general reflection on this tendency to fill as much as we can our agendas, living more free space for our personal hobbies and interests. Shawn Achor in his famous book, The happiness advantage suggests that we need to rethink about the value of free time that, for too many, is considered a waste of time. Shawn argues that if we start seeing the free time as a moment of rest and recharge, and an occasion to cultivate our personal interests and enrich our life, we will be less likely to fill as much as we can our agenda and this, in our opinion, could limit the phenomenon of happy workaholism.”

As I reviewed this interview I reflected on the cultural differences between the United States and European countries that seep into the workplace. The concept of “doing nothing” comes in many forms from different European countries—we don’t quite have a specific name here in the states, but here are a few links to some Scandinavian wisdom surrounding the art of slowing down and embracing free time as valuable:

I would like to thank Marcello and Gabriele for sharing their research, knowledge and insights so we can better understand the happy workaholic.