Addiction at work : How should organisations respond?


When I speak to business leaders there is often a reluctance to recognise or discuss the possibility that there are ‘high-functioning addicts’ in their business.

A ‘high-functioning addict’ is characterised by someone who appears to be ‘normal’ from the outside – they perform at work, participate in an out of work life and they’re fun to be around. Yet they have an addiction which they have managed to keep a secret from family, friends and colleagues. That is, until something happens.

Alcohol and drugs cost Australian workplaces an estimated $6 billion per year in lost productivity1. Recent research by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation estimates that 2.5 million days are lost annually due to drinking and drug use, at a cost of more than $680 million1.

Based on observations from my private practice, there are some working populations who are at a higher risk of developing an addiction:

  • Single men who are working in a location away from where they grew up
  • Midlife women, 35-59, for high risk drinking
  • Roles that are skewed towards relationship building and entertaining with clients
  • Employees who identify as shy or dislike large gatherings
  • Ambitious employees who consider themselves to be in an ‘outgroup’ at work
  • Staff who work across time zones
  • Staff who travel internationally and across time zones, more than four times a year
  • Shift workers

Identifying an addict in your business is very hard to do, especially if you do not have a mandatory drug and alcohol testing policy in place. Addicts are very good at keeping their habit a secret until they no longer can – and even then, they tend to only tell a select group of people. If they do decide to confide in someone at work, it will most likely be the person they trust most in the business rather than someone from HR. At this point, their habit is likely to be well established and their recovery focus is likely to be controlled drinking of alcohol or abstinence from drugs.

The broader impacts of addiction

Leaders and organisations can feel reluctance about ‘interfering’ in the lives of their employees. Yet as we know, the boundaries between work and play are increasingly loose and these aspects of our lives undoubtedly impact one another. When it comes to addiction, a common misconception is that this only affects the individual employee. But research from Dale & Livingstone (2010) shows that one in ten workers are negatively impacted by a colleague’s addiction. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Team members of an addicted employee tend to work longer hours. They could be correcting the addict’s mistakes or making up for the lost productivity of that person, particularly if they have become unreliable or are absent from work due to their addiction.
  2. Overtime covering for an addicted employee can wear thin leading to lower morale, resentment and increased workplace stress – which may cause valuable staff to leave.
  3. When the addict is responsible for significant business or client-related decisions, there is an obvious risk and impact on many should these decisions be flawed.
  4. If the addict is in an industry where human error can result in a serious injury or death, there is an even higher risk to the business.

With these impacts in mind, substance addiction cannot be ignored.

How can organisations support leaders who are battling with addiction?

As 70% of addicts are employed, the workplace is in a unique position to provide support to anyone facing these challenges – especially when they are working through recovery.


Here are 10 suggestions that can help:
  1. Develop and sustain an inclusive corporate culture that celebrates diversity (and treats employee information sensitively), enabling employees to admit mistakes and make changes without fear of impacting their reputation or career prospects. When I talk about diversity, I mean allowing people to bring who they are to the job, rather than prescribing how everything should be done.
  2. Avoid over-reliance on particular teams or individuals to deliver business results at the expense of their wellbeing. In my client work, I’ve seen that an expectation of higher-than-average contributions results in added internalised stress. Nobody wants to be the reason a bonus isn’t paid.
  3. Actively monitor outputs alongside flexible work practices and working from home activity. Some clients report how working from home for a day has increased the cravings and made it easier to lapse into old behaviours. In other words, this is one occasion where working from home might be counter-productive for the individual’s wellbeing.
  4. Adopt talent identification processes that minimise bias within teams by leaders. I’ve had it reported to me that a client’s career took off when she joined the ‘chemical club’ (and her work didn’t relate to the periodic table!). As a result she felt she was treated better and given better quality work opportunities which she believes wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.
  5. Monitor work hours and time spent in the office, ensuring rest after busy periods and/or appropriate headcount for the projects at hand. One client started using cocaine when ‘coffee just wasn’t cutting it anymore’ after regularly working 60hr weeks.
  6. Make it okay for people to not drink at work events and have a wide selection of non-alcoholic drinks available. Serving these in the same glasses as alcoholic drinks can be helpful to avoid comment.
  7. Provide opportunities in your ‘mental health calendar of events’ where you discuss these stress-induced behaviours as a preventative influence. Raising awareness of the signs helps people to self-diagnose and may prompt help-seeking behaviours. Approximately half of those who have a mental health diagnosis will also experience a substance use disorder.
  8. Provide a range of stress management skills development in your learning & development calendar and embed these in work practices, giving a clear signal that healthier alternatives are embraced. Topics may include sleep, mindfulness, nutrition, resolving conflict at work and strengths-based activities.
  9. If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) provider, ensure they have counsellors who are able to provide addiction counselling services and are familiar with the supports available within each of the local areas in which your business operates. Market your EAP to your senior staff or provide an alternative service for them, recognising that many senior leaders perceive EAP as being for their more junior employees, not themselves.
  10. Prepare your people leaders to have conversations when a team member approaches them with sensitive information alluding to a substance addiction, such as disclosing they have lost their driver’s licence or have a matter before the court; charges for drug possession, or behaviour under the influence of alcohol; and domestic conflicts. Most professionals experience anxiety about what the consequences might be and are distracted by them, significantly impacting their day-to-day performance at work. Ensure your leaders understand the company perspective and what can and can’t be supported.

Never underestimate the importance of the first disclosure at work on this topic

How the disclosure is received will influence how the employee chooses to manage their situation going forward. Employees who seek and get assistance from employers are more loyal and become more valuable employees, because they appreciate the support given to them.

As the lines between work and play continue to be blurred, the importance of bringing addiction ‘out of the closet’ cannot be underestimated. It negatively impacts productivity and wellbeing, and silently distracts otherwise valuable employees. It is one area that organisations and leaders should be prepared to address ‘head-on’ and discuss with sensitivity.

This blog post first appeared as a guest blog post for GLWS by Martine Barclay

2 Comments
    1. Thanks for the feedback. Let me know if there’s anything you would like me to help you with.

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