Managing relationships

Don’t underestimate workaholism, a problem for family and business.

By Tom Hubler

We all can identify people who work hard. We may loosely use the term “workaholic” to describe such people. But there’s a difference between people who work long hours and those who let work seriously interfere with—or even destroy—their personal life. How can you know if one of your family members in the business has stepped over that fine line where work becomes a compulsion, even an addiction? And what can you do about it?

One symptom of a workaholic is a lack of boundaries between work and home. Family business people can easily fall into that trap, because meals and family gatherings can readily turn into business meetings. Workaholics are often emotionally unavailable to their families and frequently display unpredictable mood swings. They tend to be poor delegators and perfectionists, never satisfied with their own or anyone else's work. A sure sign of workaholisim is the family’s capacity to discuss the matter. A healthy family is capable of talking rationally about touchy topics. A family impaired by a compulsive person will be too entrenched in denial even to consider the possibility.

Workaholism may seem more benign than other addictions, and certainly carries none of the stigma that comes with chemical dependencies or gambling. But as with chemical dependencies, workaholism usually can be traced to some early traumatic situation: a death, an abusive family member, or a chemically dependent parent. The dependency is an attempt to avoid the emotional trauma that eroded self-esteem.

If many of the above traits seem to apply to someone in your family, what should you do? If you can get the person into therapy or one of the addiction self-help groups available in most cities, great. Getting the workaholic to seek professional help is often difficult due to denial. But it’s not impossible. If initial family discussions are ineffective, the family can seek professional guidance for confronting the workaholic. Family members should tell the workaholic, “No matter what you do, I love you, and the entire family, not just you, will be involved in the healing process.”

Many family members try to reform workaholics with a series of ineffective tactics. Cajoling, bribing, pleading, and threatening—all these home cures only reinforce resistance. A workaholic typically deflects criticism and accuses the other person of being a nag or a bitch. Unlike other addicts, workaholics can point to tangible benefits from their extreme behavior. They can say, “Look what I’ve created, look at what I’m doing for my family.” They don’t realize that their behavior is destroying the culture of the company. Your efforts to change the workaholic may be made in the family’s best interest and in desperation, but no one can change those they love.

You can make sure he or she doesn’t destroy your own life. First you must recognize that chances are your own attitudes and behavior have become affected as well, and now are part of the problem. Workaholism is a family illness. Families typically develop intricate coping devices that help them live and work in peace. When the problem first began, the family tried to cover up for the responsibilities the workaholic started to neglect. That reinforced the workaholic’s feeling that it was okay to come home after the kids were asleep and miss school plays and ball games.

The family eventually learns to dance a little duet around each other, in an effort to avoid the issue and compensate for its effects: Mom may defend Dad’s unavailability to her children, who learn to mistrust their own feelings.

Families disrupted by this problem will keep secrets from each other to avoid stressful confrontations. Many bottle up their feelings, especially anger. Members of the family are constantly juggling weighty problems and feelings. They fear the consequences of letting go of the tenuous balance of their lives. But eventually, the evasion of feelings and lack of closeness—coupled with a pretension, at all costs, of closeness—wears thin. The coping devices are no longer effective.

Whether or not the workaholic changes, family members have the power to discover how they inadvertently may be contributing to the problem, how their own attitudes have been affected, and how they can break out of unproductive behavior cycles. There is plenty of literature about codependent people, family members of addicted people. The literature suggests that the first step to recovery can be taken by an addict’s family, once they address the problems. That will greatly improve the overall emotional health of the family. The resulting change in the family environment improves the chances that the workaholic will seek help.

Support groups for families such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are in most cities. Books and support groups try to help people to stop denying that the problem exists, and above all, to stop trying to change the “addicted” person. Codependent people must learn how to address the problem in their own life.

What happens when you don’t play the codependent game anymore?

Old behaviors

• You keep secrets from family members to keep the peace.

• You try to solve others’ problems.

• Emotional boundaries between family members and business associates are permeable: for instance, privacy and respect of differences become lost.

• You are not able to express, or even recognize, your own anger.

• You cannot ask others to do even simple favors.


• Stop protecting the workaholic and others from reality. Let them deal with unpleasant facts the best they can.

• Stop trying to be perfect.

• Learn how to say “no” to unreasonable demands.

• Instead of operating on the addict’s belief system, identify and be true to your own.

Potential benefits

• Renewed self-esteem, self-respect, and serenity.

• The ability to take care of your needs.

• Open family communications.

• Flexible roles within the family.

• Options for the future.

• The ability to respect differences within the family.

Tom Hubler is founder of Hubler Family Business Consultants and the Center for the Empowerment of Family Business, both in Minneapolis.