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by Dana Mattioli | March 10, 2009

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In the age of the BlackBerry, laptop and cell phone, distinguishing between workaholics and people just doing what's expected in their jobs can be difficult.

"It's the best dressed addiction, because most workaholics confuse symptoms with hard work," says Bryan Robinson, author of "Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them" (NYU Press, 2001)

A workaholic is addicted to working, devoting excessive hours to a job and sometimes becoming anxious when unable to do so, says Dr. Robinson, a psychotherapist in Asheville, N.C., who treats workaholics and other addicts.

When devotion to work becomes unhealthy side effects may include fatigue, sleep disorders, and stress-related ailments, such as heart attack and stroke, says Diane Fassel, author of "Working Ourselves to Death: The High Costs of Workaholism and the Rewards of Recovery" (Harper Collins, 1990), and president of Newmeasures, a survey research firm in Boulder, Colo. Relationships with family or friends also may suffer from neglect, she says.

Think you or someone you know may be a workaholic? Below are five common traits workaholics exhibit. If you have all five, chances are good you may be a workaholic, says Dr. Robinson. But some workaholics may have just a few to a great degree.

1. Preoccupation with work.

Workaholics typically have difficulty leaving the office while home or in social situations and are unable to "turn work off," says Dr. Robinson, who says he is a recovered workaholic. Working from home after the end of the typical business day is common, as is checking a BlackBerry throughout the night and weekend, he says. When they are home, a preoccupation with thoughts about their jobs may prevent them from being "psychologically present," says Dr. Robinson.

"I can be in synagogue supposedly praying and repenting on holidays, and I'm thinking about work," says Irv Flax, 63, a director of Gorfine, Schiller & Gardyn PA, a regional accounting and business-consulting firm in Baltimore who says he's a workaholic.

Some workaholics work such long hours that they aren't able to see family or socialize. In a previous position as a principal of an elementary school, Gina Gardiner, 53, says she worked 75 to 90 hours a week. "I got a great buzz out of my work," says Ms. Gardiner, of Hornchurch, England, founder of Recovering Workaholics, a group that offers assistance to workaholics. However, she says her dedication to work prevented her from meeting people and sustaining romantic relationships.

Because workaholics often dwell on work, they may find it dominating their conversations in social settings, says Alan Langlieb, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Business Relations and director of Workplace Psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Mr. Flax says he talks about taxes, business and financing at social events. His wife Nannette says she sometimes wonders whether other people are interested or are just being polite.

"Most of the time, I'll get a little perturbed, and I'll walk by and give him the evil eye or grab him," Mrs. Flax says, adding that she views his work as the "other woman."

Workaholics are usually uncomfortable using sick days or going on vacation. To avoid taking sick days, some jeopardize their health. When vacationing, some take along work to do. Mr. Flax says he brings his laptop and BlackBerry on vacation.

"The thought of being on vacation and not having work is like not having your bottle if you are an alcoholic," says Dr. Robinson. In situations where workaholics are removed from work, he says, they can experience psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms such as depression and headaches.

2. Discomfort in delegating.

Many workaholics are poor delegators because of their need to control, says Dr. Langlieb.

Workaholics justify the amount of time they spend working by convincing themselves that only they can handle the tasks that they should be delegating, says Gayle Porter, associate professor of management at Rutgers University, in Camden, N.J., who studies the impact of workaholism in the workplace. Delegating projects or tasks would show that other people were capable of completing them, which would threaten their sense of control, she says.

3. Neglect other aspects of their life.

Often workaholics put work before their families and personal lives. Dr. Robinson says many of his patients later regret not having attended events they missed or done things they skipped during the throes of their obsession with work. The day of his father's funeral, for example, Mr. Robinson says, he found himself back at his office working after attending the service instead of taking some time off for grieving.

Families often can feel neglected by a workaholic. Mr. Flax says his daughter made a wish at her bat mitzvah several years ago for him to be home more. Mr. Flax says he began coming home for dinner more often, but compensated by returning to the office.

4. Merge other parts of their lives into work.

Because work is constantly on the brain, workaholics may try to create businesses based on their hobbies. There is no demarcation between leisure and work for a workaholic, says Dr. Langlieb.

Mr. Robinson says he turned personal relationships into business endeavors. "Every friend I had I'd say, 'Let's write a book together,' " he says.

He adds that it is not unusual for workaholics to incorporate their families into their businesses by making a wife a secretary, for example.

5. 'Sneaking' work.

Workaholics, like other addicts, when confronted about their addiction, often try to hide it. Years ago, a big briefcase was difficult to hide, but today smart phones can let people practically hide their cubicles in their pockets, says Ms. Porter.

Mr. Robinson recounts a time when he was on vacation relaxing on a beach. When his partner and friends went for a walk, he pretended to be sleeping and pulled out some paperwork to complete once they left.

"If you find you have to lie to people about where you are or what you are doing, there is a problem," says Ms. Porter.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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