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Most advice on workaholism and burnout is aimed at the individual. Occasionally, it has an organizational thrust. But what about advice for the family?

Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson’s research suggests that workaholism has devastating effects on other family members that can be as severe as – or even more severe than – the familial effects of alcoholism.

But there’s a major difference between the spouses and children of alcoholics and workaholics. With alcoholism, clinicians and counsellors provide understanding for them, professional help and referrals to self-help programs like Al-Anon. With workaholics, the therapists – often workaholics themselves – usually suggest the family member accept and adapt to the workaholic’s schedule. “In other words, bite the bullet and enable the problem to continue,” he writes in Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World.

Spouses tell him that living with a workaholic can be maddening because they have so little support from the mental health system. They feel alone as a partner and parent, expected to handle everything on the home front. The message from the workaholic effectively is: Put me at the centre of your life and plan the household and the family and social life around my work schedule.

Mr. Robinson says workaholics are generally minimizers in their couple relationships, emotionally detached and withdrawn. Lauded at work for their super-achieving prowess, at home they are told to cut such effort back by people who don’t seem to understand how difficult that is. A pursuer-distancer dynamic can dominate the spousal relationship, the workaholic wanting distance and the partner wanting closeness. Such closeness can threaten and the more it is pursued the more distance grows.

“Your workaholic probably forgets, ignores or minimizes important family rituals and celebrations such as birthdays, anniversaries or children’s recitals,” he notes, addressing spouses. “He might be unable to stop work long enough to participate fully, because such events represent a distraction from his commitment to work.”

Concealment and deceit can arise, as the workaholic tries to hide their stash of work – in one case he describes a secret compartment of another person’s suitcase, unbeknownst to that individual. One woman committed work infidelity to deal with her husband’s expectations she be home with him by 5:00 p.m. She announced she was enrolled in an aerobics class, which delighted him since she was showing interest in activities beyond work, but she remained in the office an extra two hours. She came home in aerobic garb, hair carefully tousled and water sprinkled on her tights to indicate sweat.

Mr. Robinson tells partners of workaholics that molding their life around their spouse’s life leads to disappointment and only enables the distressing behaviour. Instead, stop postponing your life. “If you plan a trip to the zoo with your kids and the workaholic cancels (for the umpteenth time) because of last-minute demands at the office, go without her. When your workaholic promises to be home in time for dinner and never shows, consider eating on time without him and, instead of putting dinner on the table at midnight, let him fix his meal,” Mr. Robinson writes.

Although it’s important for you to include your workaholic in your plans and let him know he was missed and how disappointed you were by his absence, Mr. Robinson stresses you don’t have to put your family life on hold.

If there is a joint desire to improve, he recommends a couple care plan, in which the individuals separately and together rate themselves in four areas: Couple relationship, family, play and work. Then name three or four activities for improving in each area to create better boundaries and balance. In extreme cases, however, as with alcoholics, an intervention may be necessary.

The stakes are high: His research shows couples in which one spouse is a workaholic are more likely to divorce than couples in which neither is a workaholic.

Quick hits

  • Productivity is often a distraction, warns journalist Kevin Kelly. Instead of seeking better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible, aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.
  • The validation phase is where many start-up founders stumble. Webb Brown, co-founder of Kubecost, a cost monitoring system, says it’s important to test the idea and give yourself the mental freedom to say, “We’ve got this wrong.”
  • Test out job offers as well: Executive recruiter Gerald Walsh recommends before accepting the position, getting to know your immediate boss better by having a coffee or lunch off site and trying to meet with prospective co-workers.
  • Public speaking coach Gary Genard says you need to go beyond sharing data with an audience. You must put that data into context, discuss its immediacy, point out what parts of the data are worth paying attention to and, most importantly, explain why any of it matters to these listeners. In doing that, gestures, facial expression and voice can be critical. Avoid looking and sounding like a statue.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.