- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2000

Toni Ardabell, the chief operating officer at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children and Women's Center, routinely works 12-hour days. She is at the office at dawn and leaves after dark, sneaking a peek at her e-mails from home in the evenings. She puts in a good chunk of time at the office on the weekends and checks her voice mail while on vacation.

Is Ms. Ardabell a workaholic? No. Because she is able to step away to enjoy family life with her husband and two children, attend church on Sundays, take early-morning fitness walks and retreat to a weekend getaway home she is keeping balance in her life. That merely makes her a hard worker.

"A hard worker would be someone looking forward to being on the ski slopes," says psychologist Bryan E. Robinson, author of "Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children and the Clinicians Who Treat Them."

"A workaholic is someone who is on the ski slopes, thinking about work. True workaholism is a compulsion. A workaholic is someone who is working while they are fishing, while they are with their families. They cannot turn off the faucet."

Though there is a fine line between working hard and being a workaholic, one won't necessarily lead to the other unless a person has underlying psychological issues that would make him or her prone to compulsive behavior, Mr. Robinson says.

That is good to keep in mind around the Beltway, where lobbyists pride themselves on long days, lawyers brag about billable hours and high-tech workers expect work to usurp their personal lives in the hopes of their earning big stock options.

"I like to work hard," says Ms. Ardabell, 44, "so I don't mind the hours. That's the expectation of organizations right now."

Seeing the signs

"I used to think there was nothing I couldn't do," says Dan, a former computer company executive from New York and a founder of Workaholics Anonymous, of his career in the early 1980s. Dan doesn't want his last name used.

"I worked 16- or 17-hour days. My wife was afraid I would have a heart attack," Dan says. "One day, my secretary gave me some bad news. I started screaming at her and punching the cement walls. That was what I call hitting bottom."

Dan says he was angry "all the time" and adds, "I was depressed and tired. I got up from kneeling at church, and my legs felt like an 80-year-old man's."

He later switched to a less demanding position in the company and limited himself to 40-hour workweeks. He founded Workaholics Anonymous in 1983 to help himself and others like him cope with workaholic tendencies. He estimates the group has helped nearly 4,000 people nationwide.

"Within a matter of weeks, I felt 10 years younger," he says. "I think denial is strong. The way the American work ethic is, people are scared to death to admit they are addicted to work. Work is the only socially approved addiction."

Dan's symptoms were typical of work addiction, Mr. Robinson says. In counseling and studying hundreds of cases of workaholics, Mr. Robinson has found signs common to workaholics:

They are always in a rush and hyperbusy. Workaholics need to have many things happen at once. To conduct two or three activities simultaneously gives them the sense that they are getting more accomplished, he says.

They play the control game. A typical workaholic believes if he wants something done right, he has to do all of it himself. Often this is sparked by insecurity, Mr. Robinson says. By being in control of a project, a workaholic feels he is in control of his life.

Nothing is ever perfect. Because of these superhuman standards, failure and anger at others for not meeting the standards are commonplace.

Workaholics' relationships crumble in the name of work. School plays are missed, birthdays are forgotten, Christmas is interrupted. Dan calls his wife "a saint" for putting up with him during his workaholic days.

Says Mr. Robinson: "When a person is wedded to work, there is little time left over for others. An often-heard rationalization is, 'I'm doing this for us, for our future.' "

Workaholics produce work in binges. Some would rather work overtime for days than do a little work each day.

They can be restless, no-fun grumps. Many workaholics feel guilty and useless when they do something that does not produce results.

They experience work trances. True workaholics cannot recall social conversations because they were not paying attention they were thinking about work.

They are impatient and irritable. Because time is precious, most workaholics hate to wait.

They think they are only as good as their last achievement. Work can be security, filling hours and boosting self-esteem. As soon as a project is over, feelings of depression and worthlessness are bound to return.

They have no time for self-care. Work addicts spend their time taking care of their jobs. Little attention is paid to nutrition, rest and exercise. When compulsive coping mechanisms such as smoking, caffeine and alcohol abuse are added, health deteriorates further. When real stress symptoms such as headaches and high blood pressure result, many workaholics ignore those, too, saying they don't have time to go to a doctor.

Work addiction cuts across all economic and gender lines, says Barbara Killinger, a Toronto psychologist and author of "Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts."

While a picture of a high-powered executive or in-demand surgeon may come to mind, a workaholic can be a teacher, a plumber, even a stay-at-home mom who hyperschedules her children's activities for fear of idle time.

"The real evil of work addiction is narcissism," Ms. Killinger says. "No matter what job they are doing, a workaholic has to be right. They can't see others' point of view. Many chronic workaholics never really grew up."

Going back to the beginning

In counseling workaholics, Mr. Robinson has found a common experience a dysfunctional childhood.

In many of the family backgrounds of workaholics, the children behave as adults, he says. "That means children are catapulted into the adult world in order to cope with their situation. When everything around them is falling apart, their natural inclination is to stabilize that world by latching on to something that is stable and consistent. Youngsters begin to seek control wherever they can find it."

Mr. Robinson also comes by this hypothesis from personal experience. His realization that he was a workaholic led him to devote his career to studying the condition. He says that as the child of an alcoholic father, he spent so much time in childhood trying to remedy situations and maintain control of the family that he found himself acting compulsively years later.

"By the mid-1980s, I remember going to the beach with family and friends," Mr. Robinson says. "I never went on vacation without work. I would sneak some papers in in my jeans or under a spare tire. Everyone would go to the beach. I would tell them I wanted to nap, but really I was working and didn't want them to know. I worked every holiday, every weekend. If anyone interrupted me, I was so offended."

Mr. Robinson the author of two dozen books and a professor of counseling, special education and child development at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte then got some counseling of his own. He stopped smoking, another compulsive behavior, and began exercising.

"The thought of waking up on a Saturday morning with nothing planned used to terrify me," he says. "Now, I look forward to it. You would never hear anyone boast: 'I am an alcoholic.' Yet work addiction will destroy you just like any other addiction."

As Dan and Mr. Robinson have shown, there are ways to overcome work addiction. For Dan, a 12-step program was the way to go. Counseling worked for Mr. Robinson.

There also are smaller steps others can take to restore the balance in their lives, Mr. Robinson says.

"You have to look at where the balance is missing," he says. "The bottom line is to identify or connect with something that is bigger than themselves. For some people, that is church or meditation or Workaholics Anonymous. It is important to get back in touch with human relationships. Once you do that, you can see life in the big picture, not just as far as the book you are working on or the next sales report."

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