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Addicted to work for all the wrong reasons

You know the type: desk stacked high with projects, always working, demanding, constantly sweating the small details, a hard-line perfectionist and no life outside the office. Such people are workaholics, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that Dr. Bryan E. Robinson calls the nation's "best dressed addiction."
/ Source: Forbes

You know the type: desk stacked high with projects, always working, demanding, constantly sweating the small details, a hard-line perfectionist and no life outside the office.

Such people are workaholics, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that Dr. Bryan E. Robinson calls the nation's "best dressed addiction."

"It's not about long hours," says Robinson, a psychotherapist in private practice in Asheville, N.C., and author of "Chained To The Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and The Clinicians Who Treat Them". "It's about the inability to turn it off. It's a question of balance."

Corporate pressure doesn't create workaholics any more than supermarkets create obesity or liquor stores create drunks. A workaholic is driven to put in long hours by internal needs, typically a desire to escape intimacy and social relationships.

Robinson says workaholics often come from dysfunctional homes and have learned that putting in crushing hours helps calm their anxiety about other aspects of life. But like heavy drinking or overeating, workaholism only masks the underlying problem while creating other difficulties.

A hard worker will sprint at the office, handling prodigious amounts of work efficiently and well. Such people know how to relax and enjoy life away from the office and share outside interests with family and friends. But a workaholic constantly thinks and talks about work, even when at home or on the ski slopes. As a result, the workaholic's family suffers, and despite long hours at the office, productivity lags.

"Perfectionism overrides efficiency," Robinson says. "A workaholic will spend unnecessary time on a project, often going over it again and again before passing it on."

Physical signs of workaholism may include headaches, fatigue, indigestion, chest pain, shortness of breath, nervous tics or dizziness. Behavioral signs may include temper outbursts, restlessness, insomnia, difficulty relaxing, irritability, impatience, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, boredom and mood swings from euphoria to depression, Robinson says.

Workaholics typically make lousy bosses. A workaholic often micro-manages subordinates, crushing their creativity and initiative, and making unreasonable demands of them. The workaholic may be reluctant to promote a rising star, fearing that the up-and-comer might eclipse him at the office. In short, workaholics often lack confidence and self-esteem.

In many cases, this deficit leads to morale problems at the office, burnout, absenteeism, anxiety and high turnover among subordinates. The problems are difficult to quantify and there has been no definitive study, but some say the physical and mental problems stemming from workaholism may cost U.S. companies as much as $160 billion per year.

Workaholism can be toxic in the workplace, too. In most cases, workaholics aren't team players, don't delegate authority or tasks well and routinely act as if everything is all about them.

At home, the spouse of a workaholic typically says he's "not there." Workaholics can't let go of work and, therefore, aren't good parents and aren't involved in raising the children.

"A workaholic believes everything revolves around him," says Robinson. "He's the sun, and everyone else is a planet. The wife and children learn that their role is to support him so he can work, or think about work, 24/7. Children of workaholics often feel they must be perfect and have high levels of anxiety."

In the past, workaholics have typically been men, but the problem is becoming more common among women as greater numbers of females move into upper management.

Despite a company's best efforts, workaholics are found everywhere — at mom and pop businesses and across all industries, including semiconductor companies such as Intel, banks such as Citibank, food processors such as Tyson, software such as Microsoft — you name it.

However, workaholics don't have to be employed outside the home and some women show signs of workaholism in running a home and raising children. Some women with workaholic tendencies find their way to caretaking occupations such as nursing or the ministry where there's always one more patient or congregant to see.

"I think people should realize that workaholism is serious and not a good thing," Robinson says. "It can destroy marriages, and in extreme cases, it can be deadly — sometimes, people kill themselves if they don't get help for the underlying problem."

Living with a workaholic is like speaking to a zombie: There is none of the give-and-take and mutual support that breathes life into a relationship and keeps marriages intact. There is little interest in intimacy — and often no time. Robinson says a wife often drags her workaholic husband to counseling kicking and screaming and says she'll end the marriage if things don't change. Robinson's own research conducted at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that the divorce rate among workaholics is 40 percent higher than the rest of the population.

Over time, employers don't benefit from workaholics. Hard workers tend to miss fewer days than workaholics, develop better working relationships with others in the office, especially subordinates, and are more efficient.

Ed Manley, president of the International Food Service Executives Association in Las Vegas, also runs the Workaholics International Network during his 70- to 80-hour work week.

"I call myself a 'successaholic' rather than a workaholic," he says. "I don't know anyone who works 40 hours a week who's rocking and rolling and making things happen and creating opportunities."

Despite long hours, Manley says he's learned the importance of setting aside time for his family. The kids, he says, always know if you've attended their ballgames.

"At its worst, working long hours is like alcoholism," he says. "You ignore your family, and that's catastrophic. I'm always busy, but my wife and I do a lot of things together — what we don't do is sit around and do nothing."

Robinson tries to help workaholics understand the basis for their addiction to the office and tries to help them develop outside interests.

"Workaholism destroys marriages and harms children," Robinson says. "We need to give workaholism the stigma it deserves."