Handling Workplace Addiction

Addiction can be as devastating to a work relationship as it is to a family or friendship. Most addiction involves spending money, as in drug addiction, addiction to overspending (shopping, online investing, etc.) legal fees from DUIs, lost jobs and income, hospital costs, and myriad other gratuitous costs, so an addict may “borrow” money and not pay it back. It also involves betrayal, because addiction is usually a clandestine thing: the addict knows there's some kind of a problem, even if he or she is not admitting to addiction, and often uses friends, family and co-workers to hide the problem. When a colleague learns he or she has been used, the most devastating part is the sense of betrayal. Workplace relationships do survive addiction, if the addicted person gets treatment and becomes clean and sober, but it’s not easy.

To help a boss or colleague with a substance abuse problem:

1. Get informed about options. Before attempting to help, make sure you know what the options are for your colleague. Al Anon (or call 1-888-4Al-anon) is an organization for the friends, colleagues, spouses and family members of alcoholics, and the other twelve step groups have info about other addictions. You will find these meetings incredibly helpful. To get info for your colleague go to the AA.org website or call AA at (212) 870-3400. Call the numbers, explain that you want to help a friend, and find out what information these organizations need to help your colleague. But, don’t just refer your boss to the website or phone numbers. Give him or her all the details you can. Remember, he or she is probably feeling hopeless and helpless, and perhaps even worthless, and will need support every step of the way.

2. Getting help in the workplace is difficult for several reasons: First, people resist thinking they need help, anyway, which is known as “denial.” Second, the fear that one will be stigmatized or damage future job prospects if the company knows one needs help adds to the reluctance. Third, employees fear that others will find out about their personal problems or secrets, and they'll face ridicule or be ostracized. If an employer can give solid reassurance that its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) help can be used without stigma, it is easier for employees to utilize the help available. Making it possible to contact the EAP program by phone from home makes it much more private. Reassuring employees that therapy notes, insurance records and other information will be kept confidential (if this is true) will also make it easier for them to seek help. Referral phone numbers, etc. posted on the computer so that anyone can access it without being found out is also helpful. If an employee’s problems are beginning to affect his or her work, it’s important to have a private discussion with the employee, stressing the need for him or her to get counseling or other support before instituting other penalites.

If the workplace EAP is just a referral service to a professional off premises, then the employee has a greater chance of getting help without backlash. However, if the professional (psychologist, counselor, drug treatment program) is required to report to the insurance company, then privacy might not be assured. Especially if the therapist is required to fill out a detailed report in order to keep the insurance coverage. The employee must always keep in mind that a therapist’s records can be subpoenaed, for example in a workmen’s compensation case. For this reason, I do not accept insurance or keep written notes in my client files. But then, since I’m a one-person practice, it is possible for me to do it this way. Treatment programs and counseling centers must keep records, so that different staff can handle the same client. A client who wants true privacy needs to get therapy without insurance. Twelve-step programs are another way to keep the employer from finding out details, although the employee should not go to a program with other employees. Twelve-step programs emphasize anonymity, but if another employee of your firm attends your program, there is no guarantee that employee will respect your anonymity and privacy. People do gossip. It is possible, however, for an employee to get EAP help at one company, then go to another company after the problem is under control. If the employee has to change insurance, there may be “pre-existing condition” problems to be concerned about.

If an employee is referred by a superior in the company, then the damage may have already been done by the employee’s own behavior (lateness, coming back from lunch with visible signs of drinking, not showing up, anger problems, impaired ability due to alcohol or depression) -- going to an EAP can help, in this case, if the company sees it as an attempt on the employee’s part to correct problems. If the employee can’t figure out where to go for help, then the EAP is a lot better than nothing. Also, if the employee can’t afford to pay for care, the EAP may make it possible to get care under insurance. In those cases, the benefits outweigh the costs. If, however, the problem is not known to the company, the employee might be much better off paying for care himself, and finding his own help, such as AA, counseling, psychotherapy for depression or anxiety, or drug treatment.

3. An addict or alcoholic has impaired impulse control, so just telling him or her to change won’t work. Expert help is needed. You need resources so you can offer him a program, rehab, or suggest therapy. Don’t be surprised if your friend is angry at you.

4. Find a couple of co-workers, friends or family members you can trust to be helpful (or who are in recovery themselves), and talk to them to find out what they know about the situation, and if they’d be willing to help. If you’re not sure about the extent of the substance abuse problem, they may be able to confirm your fears, or set them at rest. If you find that your fears are confirmed, make it clear to everyone that your friend has a real problem. Make a plan for what each of you are willing to do to help. Someone may volunteer to take your friend to a meeting, or support you in confronting your mutual friend. Make an agreement not to gossip about this.

4. Once the first three steps are in place, you need to talk to the boss or co-worker. If you, a relative, or one of the other friends can get him or her alone, away from work or other friends, do so. This is a very personal issue, and very painful for everyone involved. Your company EAP might be able to help you do an intervention with your boss.

5. Once you get your co-worker alone, tell him or her what you know about the situation. Give evidence, times and dates of instances where you felt this friend was in danger or endangering others, or perhaps risking a job or other friendships. This may mortify your colleague, but it’s important that he or she knows you know. Say you care, you’re willing to help if he or she wants help, and what you can do to help. The alcoholic/addict needs to know you are willing to support getting sober. She or he may tell you “I'm fine, I don’t need help.” or even be angry at you. In that case, don’t get angry or annoyed. Instead, say if he or she ever needs help, you’re available.

6. If the person is endangering himself or someone else (driving drunk with others in the car, or operating machinery while intoxicated, for example) you may need to get tough, take the keys away, call your superiors. This is very difficult, but it could be the event that gets your colleague help. If this person’s behavior is making your life miserable, you may have to limit your contact with this person as well as report the problem to superiors. If you do, please say why. It can be the impetus to go to AA or treatment.

None of this is pleasant, or easy, but if you honestly believe your boss is addicted, it’s the caring thing to do. Remember that addiction is progressive, and the addicted person is not in control, so he or she can’t just stop the troubling behavior.

If the the addiction problem is yours, then you first need to understand the problem: Addiction/Compulsion is defined by how much it interferes with one's life, including work and relationships. If you’re working so much that it interferes with your health, your relationships, friendships or family connections or your general health and well-being, then you’re a workaholic. Many professions require you to be a workaholic to be successful (for example, big law firms, medical doctors, and corporate management positions.) So, you may have to set limits in order to keep your work life in proper perspective.

Try scheduling personal and family time in your calendar, and keeping the appointments as carefully as you do the business ones. If your family life is not good, or you don’t have good friendships, you may be using work as a place to escape, to avoid dealing with these problems. Getting into counseling to solve those problems may help you keep your work life under control.

Employees should also be careful about taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs, because they can impair performance on the job. Never take psychotropic drugs prescribed by your regular doctor. Drugs should always be taken in conjunction with therapy, and supervised by a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable. A general physician can dispense these drugs for the wrong problem, or in the wrong way. Medication can indeed be helpful, but they will only temporarily alleviate the problem. Only therapy can correct the root cause of the problem. If you are curious, The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs is a step-by-step description of the process, with exercises and case histories.

Prescription drugs are fast becoming the most prevalent addiction. Drug advertising and trying to avoid the more difficult parts of life lead people to believe that they should not feel feelings, but instead take a pill. This leads to an inability to handle feelings or inner pain, and further dependence on anti-anxiety or anti-depressive drugs. If chronic pain is present, you’ll need to take painkillers, but your doctor should be monitoring your use of them. To avoid abusing prescription drugs, use only drugs prescribed by your doctor, and use them as directed. If you have concerns, let your doctor know. Don’t get prescription drugs from more than one doctor without informing both about what you’re taking. If you can’t control your use, it’s important to get treatment for the addiction.

Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, The Real 13th Step and her newest, How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter. Dr. Tessina was the CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for Love Forever. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina

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