Addiction affects people at all socioeconomic levels, including white-collar workers and executives. These people may use to improve performance or manage stress. People with drug and alcohol problems may continue to function at work, hiding their problem from others. However, drug abuse and alcoholism are serious problems that can ruin careers. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment options, such as employee assistance programs.
What Kinds of Drugs Do These People Abuse?
Some of the most commonly abused substances among white-collar workers and executives include:
- Alcohol. The majority of working adults consume alcohol occasionally, with 63% of employed adults using alcohol in their leisure time. Out of that number, nearly 9% consume 5 or more drinks on 5 or more days per month. Further, 15% of all employees in a 2006 national survey acknowledged that during the previous 12 months, they had either used alcohol before going into work, used during the workday, or showed up to work with a hangover.1 Another study found relatively high rates of alcohol abuse and dependence among U.S. surgeons.2
- Prescription opiates. According to a National Safety Council survey, more than 70% of workplaces have been affected by prescription drug abuse.3 Opiates are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs by white-collar professionals. They are typically prescribed for pain. But many people do not take them as directed. As a result, the number of individuals who are addicted to prescription opioids has increased, and this number includes white-collar workers.1
- Prescription stimulants. These are traditionally prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in both children and adults. However, they are often abused because they are believed to enhance cognition.
- Prescription sedatives. These include benzodiazepines, which doctors often prescribe for sleep and anxiety disorders. Research indicates that nearly 1 in 20 adults in the United States fills a benzodiazepine prescription each year, and many people use benzodiazepines long-term, increasing the risk of addiction.5
- Heroin.The number of middle-class individuals abusing this illegal opioid is on the rise. Among people with annual incomes of $50,000 or more, heroin use increased 60% from 2002-2004 to 2011-2013, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.6
- Marijuana. Cannabis is the most commonly abused illicit drug by employees. A 2007 report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that approximately 7.3 million U.S. workers had used marijuana in the past month.7
- Cocaine. Statistics indicate that this is also a commonly abused drug among full-time professional workers.7
Tom W. first tried heroin at the age of 19. He began using the drug regularly to cope with chronic pain from an old sports injury. The drug also helped him deal with feelings of anxiety. Twenty-seven years later, Tom—now a tenured professor at a top university—tells The Daily Beast that he shoots up heroin as much as 6 times per day.8
“The people whose heroin use we come to know about are people who couldn’t afford to insulate themselves from the authorities,” he says. “If you base me on the stereotype of a heroin addict that the media propagates, I couldn’t talk because I’d be in a playground shooting heroin into my eye sockets.”
Why Do They Use Drugs?
Here are some of the most common reasons white-collar and professional workers use drugs:
- The culture. Certain jobs have a culture that encourages drug and alcohol use. In his memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort described the hard-partying lifestyle of Wall Street professionals. Extensive drug and alcohol use was part of the work culture for Belfort and other executives.9
- Increased energy and performance. Professional athletes, for example, abuse drugs to enhance their athletic performance.10 White-collar workers and executives may also use so-called smart drugs or stimulants to help improve their thinking and performance at work.
- Stress relief. Some professions are extremely stressful, making workers more likely to use drugs and alcohol to cope with the demands of the job. One example is in medicine, where doctors must manage high-pressure demands and burnout on a daily basis.12
- Easy access. In certain occupations, drugs or prescriptions for drugs are easy to obtain. This can lead to increased risk of substance abuse among people in these professions. The medical field is one example. Many doctors have easy access to prescription drugs, and they may become addicted as they attempt to self-medicate pain issues or get high.12
- Mental health disorder. Some drugs that are used to treat mental health disorders, such as benzodiazepines and stimulants, carry a risk of abuse. People may start out using these substances to treat a mental illness and become addicted when they do not take them as prescribed.
- Prescription. Drugs commonly used to treat medical conditions may carry the risk of addiction. For instance, opiates are given for pain. A person may start out taking an opioid for a genuine pain condition and become addicted. A good example is a professional athlete that becomes addicted to an opioid after taking it for an injury.Likewise, benzodiazepines, which are prescribed for sleep, may lead to abuse and dependence.5
What Are the Signs That a Person May Have a Problem?
Drugs and alcohol cause problems not only for the person using them, but also for employers and colleagues who share a workplace with the individual. So how do you know if someone is abusing drugs or alcohol? Here are some common things to look for:
- Moods that frequently change for no reason
- Frequent tardiness or absences from work
- Not keeping appointments
- Poor performance at work
- Problems getting along with others at work
- Irritability or aggression
- Unkempt appearance and poor hygiene
- Social withdrawal
- Frequent and vague medical complaints
- Financial problems
- Disappearing from the workplace for extended periods of time
- Smelling of alcohol or marijuana smoke
- Complaints from customers about behavior
- Heavy drinking at employee events1,3,12
What Are the Consequences of Addiction?
Substance abuse among executives and white-collar workers can have far-reaching consequences. Not only does drug abuse and alcoholism affect the employee, but it also impacts the employer in lost productivity, healthcare costs, and reputation.
Here are just a few of the consequences of addiction for the employee:
- Job loss
- Physical health problems
- Frequent problems with coworkers and others
- Trouble getting work completed and meeting deadlines
- Injuries on the job
- Performance issues
- Loss of wages from absenteeism
- Legal issues1,3
Employee drug use may result in the following consequences for the employer:
- Negative impact on company’s reputation
- Employee theft or stealing
- Reduced productivity
- Higher health and worker’s compensation costs
- Low employee morale
- Disciplinary problems
- High turnover
- Fatal accidents
- Workplace violence1,14
Why Do White-Collar Addicts Have a Hard Time Getting Help?
One of the reasons that many white-collar workers and professionals don’t get help for substance abuse issues is because of the stigma associated with addiction. Often, when people think of someone that uses drugs, they picture an unkempt, unsuccessful, or unemployed person—not an esteemed surgeon or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. They may not be able to accept that addiction can happen to them or fear that they might lose their job if they ask for help.
Another reason that people are reluctant to admit to a substance abuse issue is that they are still performing at their job, so they aren’t convinced the drug use is a problem. They may even think that the drugs help them perform their jobs better.
They are still performing at their job, so they aren’t convinced the drug use is a problem.
Still others might think that they’re allowed to indulge in substances because they’ve earned it from their hard work. Many have the income to afford a steady supply of drugs. If they develop an addiction, they may not be able to admit that they don’t have control over their use—particularly if they’re someone who’s used to being in charge. Their boss or co-workers may look the other way or not even notice as long as the person is getting their work done.
How Do You Talk to Someone Who Might Have a Problem?
You might be wondering how to help someone who has a substance abuse problem. Whether that person is a colleague, employee, or friend, here are some things that you can do to help:
- Avoid confrontation. Although television portrays a confrontational intervention as a sound strategy, such an approach is not helpful in most cases. There is no scientific evidence that aggressive confrontations are effective at convincing people they have a problem. In fact, these types of interventions may lead to violent encounters.15
- Find a professional. Many people are more likely to listen to objective experts over family and friends when it comes to getting help.15
- Explore treatment options. Even if your friend or coworker is not willing to get help at this time, look into treatment centers for the future. You can reach out to them to determine what types of treatment they offer and if they have any advice. If you are an employer, let the employee know about employee assistance programs that your company provides.
- Let the person know that you care. Tell the person that you are concerned and want to help. If you are an employer, you might offer a leave of absence or connect the employee with an assistance program. Express your concern non-judgmentally and empathetically.
- Document problems. Keep track of any disciplinary measures related to the employee’s behavior. Let the person know what consequences they might face if the problem doesn’t improve, and make a formal referral to an employee assistance program to help the employee correct the problem.
- Remember that you are not qualified to diagnose the person. Even if your employee tests positive for a substance or you highly suspect that they are using drugs, a formal diagnosis is needed to determine if they are addicted.
What Treatment Options Are Available for These People?
- Employee assistance programs. These programs, also called EAPs, offer short-term counseling for employees with alcohol and drug problems. They can also help with other issues. An EAP may include support groups, drug and alcohol counseling, and relapse prevention. These programs have been effective at helping people with alcohol problems return to work.16,17
- Luxury and executive treatment programs. These rehabs are primarily tailored to high-ranking executives, business owners, and other professionals. They are typically private and provide special amenities. They may include a variety of therapies, such as counseling, medication management, holistic therapy, and support groups.Many of these programs have business centers where the person can continue to work remotely.
- Inpatient rehab. Hospitalization is sometimes required to treat drug addiction and alcoholism. Someone who is dependent on alcohol or drugs may start out with a detoxification program or be supervised in an inpatient setting until they are medically stable.
- Outpatient rehab. Outpatient treatment is often suitable for people with jobs because they can attend treatment sessions while living at home and continuing to work. Outpatient treatment varies in its intensity depending on what services are needed. It might also involve medication management.
- 12-step programs. These treatments, sometimes referred to as peer support programs, involve group-based therapy. Although these programs are effective, they do not work for everyone. High-profile individuals may not feel comfortable attending a treatment group.
- Relapse prevention and aftercare programs. Although employees may go through a period of sobriety after they receive treatment for substance abuse issues, they will need follow-up care to prevent relapse. These programs teach the employee skills to help maintain sobriety. Post-treatment relapse is common,17 but appropriate treatment and aftercare can help reduce the risk.
- National Business Group on Health: Center for Prevention and Health Services. (2009). An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse: Strategies and Treatment Recommendations.
- Oreskovich, M.R. and others. (2012). Prevalence of Alcohol Use Disorders Among American Surgeons. Archives of Surgery, 147(2), 168-174.
- National Safety Council. (2017). How the Prescription Drug Crisis is Impacting American Employers.
- Smith, M.E. and Farah, M.J. (2012). Are Prescription Stimulants “Smart Pills?”: The Epidemiology and Cognitive Neuroscience of Prescription Stimulant Use by Normal Healthy Individuals. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5):717-741.
- Olfson, M., King, M., and Schoenbaum, M. (2015). Benzodiazepine Use in the United States. JAMA Psychiatry, 72(2), 136-142.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Today’s Heroin Epidemic Infographics.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2007). Worker Substance Use and Workplace Policies and Programs.
- Haglage, A. (2014). The White Collar Heroin Problem.
- Belfort, J. (2007). The Wolf of Wall Street. New York: Bantam Dell.
- Reardon, C.L. and Creado, S. (2014). Drug Abuse in Athletes. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 5,95-105.
- Price, M. (2011). The Risks of Night Work. Monitor on Psychology, 42 (1).
- Dumitrascu, C., Mannes, P., Gamble, L., Selzer, J. (2014). Substance Use Among Physicians and Medical Students. Medical Student Research Journal, 3, 26-35.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Faces of Addiction.
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (2017). Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2002). The Workplace and Alcohol Problem Prevention.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).