Working through addiction… while at work
Working through addiction… while at work

two professional women discuss addictionsI recently had coffee with a good friend who works in a very different profession than mine. For a little while, we talked shop about our work and traded strategies on how we deal with certain issues. Although she’s an accountant and I am a Work and Business Psychologist (officially known as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist) offering Career and Executive Coaching, we have plenty in common. We both encounter similar problems that our clients are dealing with and these are often issues that most people wouldn’t think would come up in our specific lines of work.

The seriousness, prudence, and discretion required to protect our respective clients are often comparable to that of a lawyer or a Clinical Psychologist. We all deal with sensitive personal information.

As my accountant friend noted,

“I’m not only dealing with just a client’s financial information I’m also delving into their personal habits and or problems … I have seen lives financially and personally destroyed by addictions, whether it is gambling or substance abuse … often these delicate matters eventually come up.”


I reflected on all the times that I’ve drawn on academic, personal, and professional experiences to help people navigate around complicated life events including:


  1. Mental health issues like burnout, anxiety, depression;
  2. Harassment, bullying, and human rights issues (e.g., racism, exclusion, barriers to employment because of religion/cultural affiliation);
  3. Divorce and separation;
  4. Invisible and visible disabilities; and
  5. Domestic violence


On reflection, I realized that I haven’t actually spent any time writing about employees and/or clients that are silently struggling with addiction and its fallout. Drug addiction is also called substance use disorder, and it’s defined as a disease that affects a person’s brain and behaviour and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication. Substances including prescription medication, alcohol, cannabis and nicotine are considered drugs. When someone becomes addicted, they may continue to use the drug despite the harm it causes physically, mentally, to one’s relationships, finances, and workplace performance.


alcohol is the most common addictionAccording to Statistics Canada, “approximately 21.6 percent of Canadians, or about six million people met the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime.  Alcohol was the most common substance for which people met the criteria for abuse or dependence at 18.1 percent.  More Canadians had symptoms of cannabis abuse or dependence in their lifetime (6.8 percent) compared with other drugs (4.0 percent).”

If slightly over one person in five will meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, it means that most of us will work with someone who is dealing with an addiction. Despite the prevalence of addictions, it’s not a topic that’s usually discussed freely in the workplace.

When used long enough and frequently enough, eventually, drugs and/or alcohol can change how our brains work and interfere with our ability to make choices, leading to intense cravings and compulsive drug use. People who have become addicted or dependent on drugs or alcohol often experience:

  • problems with their memory,
  • impaired judgement, attention and decision-making
  • impulsiveness
  • loss of self-control
  • and depending on the substance, paranoia, aggressiveness, hallucinations and a higher risk of unintentional injuries, accidents and domestic violence incidents (e.g., alcohol and drugs are partly to blame in an estimated 80 percent of offences leading to jail time in the U.S. These incidents include domestic violence, driving while intoxicated and offences related to damaged property).


All these symptoms make good performance at work (and daily living) more difficult.

addiction to prescription drugsClearly, what’s happening in our personal lives can have a profound effect on our professional lives. This escalates quickly when someone is dealing with something as complex and all-consuming as an addiction. When someone is in recovery from an addiction, they will probably identify with the notion that maintaining their sobriety while also making meaningful progress in their professional life feels like more effort than they may be comfortable taking on.  The metaphor of planes taking off against the wind feels relevant and timely. In that previous blog, I wrote about how common obstacles feel significant and can make it seem like there’s no way forward to a better work situation. But I also noted that just as a plane can take off against the wind, motivated people with the right systems, support, and tools, in place can safely launch or relaunch their careers.


If this blog post resonates with you (or someone you know) I invite you to contact me privately by phone (I offer a no-obligation, free 15-minute initial phone consultation)emailTwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

If something urgent comes up, I’m also available by a voice or video on Magnifi, an expertise-on-demand app that allows me to squeeze in quick calls between appointments on my official schedule and some evening and weekend options.


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