Too Much of a Good Thing? The Signs of a Workaholic, spring 2001

What's the difference between a devoted professional and a workaholic? Where does dedication end and obsession begin? It's really all a matter of degree, but there are some signs to watch out for. Find out whether work has taken over your life.

Like anything that crosses the line into obsession, the key to deciding whether you're a workaholic is determining whether your work style is making you unhappy. A hard worker who loves his or her job and is having fun pursuing a career is one thing. Workaholics, on the other hand, often find themselves depressed, anxious and exhausted.

Bryan E. Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk (NYU Press, 1998), describes the following red flags to look for: rushing, restlessness, scheduling back-to-back appointments, reluctance to delegate tasks, perfectionism, family neglect and even poor personal hygiene.

Workaholics often use their job as an escape or psychological safe haven. According to Robinson, work addicts are often children of alcoholic or workaholic parents. Consequently, he writes, work addicts tend to be ego-driven, controlling people with an "obsessive need to excel, a compulsive need for approval, a deep-seated unhappiness, fear of intimacy, and a sense of low self-worth. Workaholics become dependent on their work to define who they are and gain a positive sense of themselves."

And, like other addictions, workaholism perpetuates a cycle that flows through families. Children of work addicts experience family discord and blame themselves. "In workaholic families, there is no tangible cause for the confusion, guilt and inadequacy," writes Robinson. And so, the child concludes, "something must be wrong with me." Consequently, adult children of work addicts tend to grow up "self-critical, depression-prone, overly serious, angry and unsuccessful in their adult intimate relationships."

Fortunately, once a person has acknowledged his or her obsession with work, there is treatment available. Mr. Robinson encourages family members to "identify and express their feelings about their problems, refrain from making alibis for the workaholic family member's absenteeism or lateness at social functions, let their loved one be responsible for explanations, and refrain from assuming the workaholic's household duties."

There is also an organization called Workaholics Anonymous, which has nationwide chapters and regular meetings. The organization operates a 12-step program, which serves to heal compulsive work habits and develop a more well balanced, fulfilling lifestyle.