Those suffering from a substance use disorder can very effectively hide their addictions. Functional addicts appear to successfully manage every aspect of daily life, and are adept at fooling friends and family members – even themselves. Often they struggle for years, without any obvious effect of the addiction on work, before anyone discovers their secret.
As a result, the addiction frequently goes untreated, and eventually progresses to the point where it can no longer be hidden. The effect on health, relationships, finances and work is undeniable and far-reaching. According to findings reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 18.2% of unemployed adults over age 18 in the United States were current illicit drug users at the time of the study.
The research supports a strong correlation between job loss and substance abuse problems. An individual addicted to prescription medication like opioids, alcohol, or illegal drugs such as meth or heroin, will have difficulties maintaining professional responsibilities at some point.
Actually consuming alcohol or drugs in the workplace often is part of the progression of the addiction, and has an obvious detrimental impact on career. Even if there is no job loss, there is a significant impact on performance and success at work.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace
Defying the myth of the stereotypical addict, many of those suffering from a substance use disorder continue to work. NIDA reports that 70% of illegal drug abusers are employed, as are most binge drinkers. Marijuana and cocaine are the most commons illicit drugs used in the workplace.
Consuming drugs or alcohol on the job causes medical, financial and social problems. The occurrence of accidents and violent behaviour at work increases dramatically when employees are intoxicated.
Alcohol and drug use on the job can severely impair job performance of co-workers, threaten public safety, and even result in death. In addition, it can lead to increased absenteeism, tardiness, lack of productivity, poor decision making, withdrawal symptoms impacting ability to work, a pre-occupation with taking substances during the workday, and conflict with other employees.
This frequently results in disciplinary action and dismissal.
Research findings indicate that there are several factors that may contribute to substance abuse at work. These include the availability of drugs and alcohol, a lack of workplace policies, no consequences for the behaviour, and a culture of acceptance.
The culture can play a significant role in whether drinking and doing drugs at work is tolerated or discouraged. The gender of the employees is also an indicator: both men and women are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol at work when most of the employees are female than they do in male-dominated work environments.
Any workplace can be affected by on-the-job substance abuse, however. It is a serious issue in virtually every industry.
Effects of Addiction on Work and Career
One of the biggest impacts of addiction on work relates to engagement, or the energy expended in carrying out job tasks. Addicts may begin to notice that they no longer have the same enthusiasm for work that they once did, and this will affect job performance. Such a subtle effect may not be detected at all, or if it is, it may not be perceived to be connected to substance abuse.
Chronic lateness and increased absenteeism are two more serious consequences of substance use disorders. Suffering the effects of drug and alcohol abuse can make it difficult to wake up in the morning, and can make it impossible to go to work at all. A professional reputation can only survive so many missed days.
Dishonest or unethical behaviour can begin small, like clocking in or out early, or spending time at work on personal tasks, and escalate to more serious actions, such as theft or financial crimes. This very often results in job loss, or even involvement with law enforcement.
Intervening with a Colleague
Both the individual struggling with addiction, and his or her co-workers, have an obligation to take note of the indicators, and facilitate access to treatment.
Being honest, and looking impartially at their own behaviour, is the first step in the addict asking for help. Fellow employees have the best chance of success if they approach the situation from a place of support and compassion, and are non-judgemental.
People with a drug or alcohol addiction are suffering from a disease, and may also have a co-occurring mental health condition.
Treatment by a team of health care providers that includes counselling, therapy, and/or medication is essential. A co-worker may be the only one is able to intervene, particularly if family members have already been alienated or suffer from substance abuse themselves.
Another mental health problem that can dramatically impact career, as well as devastate family and relationships, is work addiction. Also referred to as workaholism, it is similar to gambling or gaming addiction in that suffers have an uncontrollable urge to engage in the addictive behaviour, ignoring the negative effects.
Though many people jokingly refer to themselves as workaholics, those with a true work addiction have an unreasonable obsession with work and career success. Like someone with a substance abuse problem, they receive a “high” from working. Equally unable to alter their behaviour, they are compelled to repeat it again and again.
Indicators, Warning Signs and Treatment
At a time when excessive hours and commitment to one’s career is celebrated, it can be difficult to identify workaholism. Individuals with an addiction to work will compulsively engage in work as a means of avoiding serious issues and emotional crises in other parts of their lives, oblivious to the consequences.
Signs of being a workaholic include perfectionism, the need to control, always staying busy, difficulty with relationships, preoccupation with work, impatience, irritability, feelings of self-inadequacy, and self-neglect.
Like any addiction, workaholism requires treatment, including of any related mental health conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, anxiety or bi-polar disorder. A comprehensive plan includes therapy, counselling and/or medication by a team of medical professionals.
The Mental Health Impact of Job Loss Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Copyright 2019
How Does Marijuana Use Affect School, Work and Social Life? National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), December 2019
How Does Marijuana Use Affect School, Work and Social Life American Psychiatric Association (APA), Last Reviewed: September 2018
Work, Addiction and “Workalholism” Psychology Today, February 12, 2018
Drugs, Brains and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction Nora D. Volko, M.D., National Institutes of Health, July 2016
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