I don’t think that anyone sets out with the intention of becoming a workaholic. Nor does it seem likely that most people allow it to happen willingly. Of course, for some, being a workaholic is seen simply as an unfortunate by-product of being successful and wealthy. Yet, even for them, workaholism is likely to destroy much of the pleasure that their wealth and success brings. After all, if you’re working all the time, you aren’t going to be in any position to make good use of whatever benefits your success has brought you.

It’s important to distinguish between a workaholic and someone who is simply wrapped up in their work—either because they enjoy it so much, or because, for a while, they have decided to make it a priority in order to win a promotion or get the kind of lifestyle that they want. For a workaholic, work is an end in itself. While it may bring wealth or power, what matters most is simply working. Just as an alcoholic drinks because he or she must, not because they enjoy it, so a workaholic is addicted to working—even when there is no rational reason for doing so.

it’s hard to judge precisely where someone might slip from being hard-working, to become increasingly obsessed with work, to becoming a fully-fledged workaholic. I suspect it happens quite slowly, with no real consciousness on the part of the person involved that some boundary had been crossed between a voluntary immersion in work and a state of addiction.

Match yourself against these indicators
That’s why I’m offering some indicators of potential workaholism: pointers that might help you notice when you may be getting close to the point where hard work has ceased being a means to an end, and has become an end in itself. None of these actions on their own indicate workaholism. But the more that appear to be present in your life, the more likely it may be that the role of work in your life is getting out of hand.

  • Workaholics are totally preoccupied with work. It dominates their thinking nearly all the time. They talk about it, even when the subject is inappropriate. They find themselves dwelling on it, when it should be the furthest thing from their minds: when they are supposedly relaxing at home, talking with their family, enjoying a leisurely meal, or making love.
  • Because workaholics devote so much time an attention to work, little or none remains for forming close relationships. Many workaholics are loners; not always because they wish to be, but because they find that their obsession with work wrecks their chances to make good relationships. They work such long hours that they aren’t able to socialize or meet people outside of work. If all of your friends and acquaintances work where you do, or have some other close connection to your job, it’s worth asking yourself why that is.
  • Workaholics either don’t take vacations, or time off when they are sick, or they take their work with them. Going on vacation makes them uncomfortable. They dwell on visions of work piling up. They convince themselves that other people will mess up without them. The most paranoid come to believe that someone will deliberately steal their work, or spoil their projects, if they aren’t there to keep an eye on things. If they do take a vacation, they take along work too, or keep checking back obsessively with their office. The same happens if they are sick. In fact, too avoid taking sick days, many workaholics go into the office, spreading infection all around, or even jeopardize their own health.
  • Workaholics cannot delegate. They are obsessed with staying in direct control of everything linked to their work. They usually justify the amount of time they spend working by convincing themselves that only they can handle whatever it is that they do. If the pressures pile up, they simply work harder or longer hours. the subordinates of workaholics often find themselves virtually redundant, or reduced to the most mundane kinds of work.
  • Workaholics routinely neglect everything else for the sake of their work. Even if they accept that they should be devoting time to other things, they will find some reason to justify not doing so if it would clash with work. The families of workaholics become all too well aware of the countless excuses for missing family occasions, school meetings, birthday parties, or any other activity that might require the person to set aside work for more that a few moments. Many workaholics, like many alcoholics, have a wrecked family life and a history of divorce and broken relationships.
  • If they have to undertake non-work activities, they try to link them to work. Social activities become occasions for work-directed networking. They may seem to be keen golfers, for example, until you discover that they habitually use golfing occasions to conduct business. Every supposed social gathering becomes another opportunity to make new business contacts or try to interest others in something connected with their work.
  • A workaholic’s identity is totally submerged in their work. It’s as if the person is their work, and has no independent existence. This is very close to the truth. For a workaholic, the boundaries between their work and their personality and existence have broken down. Their work not only defines them, they feel that, without it, they would no longer have any existence. Take away their work and there is nothing left. They cannot face the emptiness that would remain, so they rush back to the only thing that offers them security: their work.
  • Many, many workaholics are permanently in denial. Like alcoholics, workaholics often deny their problem. They become extremely clever at hiding the truth from themselves. They think up elaborate justifications and excuses for their lifestyle. They use modern technology to hide their activities from others. Today’s cell phones, laptops, and ease of Internet access mean that the old image of the workaholic as someone sitting at home, or on the beach, surrounded by papers and files is rare. All it takes is a BlackBerry, or one of the new cell-phone PDAs, to have instant access to all the files you might need.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest, and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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