Addicts in the Workplace: Recognizing the Signs and Understanding How You Can Help

To recognize addicts in the workplace, you need to understand how addiction manifests in behavior. Through this recognition, you can broach the subject of treatment either directly or indirectly by communicating with the individual’s loved ones. The end goal is helping someone struggling with addiction look at the bigger picture and receive the treatment that they need.

Addiction is not openly discussed in our society, leading to many misconceptions about addicts and what constitutes their typical behavior. Recognizing so-called “functional” addicts in the workplace can be especially difficult. Often, people suffering from an addiction can still excel in their career without showing obvious signs of drug use.

Adding to the misinformation about addiction is the fact that drug users who work in professional settings often believe that their behavior is normal. Sure, they might unwind more often than their colleagues but, ultimately, they view their vice as an ordinary part of their life that has no effect on their success at work.

Sometimes, it is only when you take a closer look at an addict’s life that you see signs of fracture. You might catch them lying about or downplaying their partying and drug use, they may start coming in on Monday mornings looking anything but refreshed from their weekends, or their sick days may become habitual. Although none of these behaviors is a definitive sign of addiction in and of itself, they are definitely red flags that may indicate that your colleague is in need of an intervention.

If you notice the signs of a potential functioning addict in your workplace, there are steps you can take to offer supportive help. Although addiction can be a difficult subject to broach, it’s important to remember that addiction does not discriminate; your coworker could be close to severely damaging their health and their career. By taking an active and positive role in your colleague’s life, you could help change their trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward swing—and pull them out of the grips of addiction.

Behaviors and Signs of an Addict in the Workplace

While our society often paints a picture of addiction that suggests only the poor and homeless can fall victim to its grasp, in reality, this is an untruth. Functioning addicts’, as they are often referred to, have the ability to be professionally successful, at least in the short term. This reveals a side of addiction that is rarely portrayed in popular culture, despite being just as dangerous as a stereotypical addiction that prevents an addict from gaining professional esteem. Some workplace cultures even accept or tolerate addiction—just look at the history of drug use on Wall Street.

The signs of a functional addict will often be subtle, even slipping under your radar if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Common indicators of a functioning addict in the workplace are:

  • Excessive substance abuse: Due to the acceptability of drug use in some fields of occupation, this is an obvious, but sometimes difficult to spot, sign of a functioning addict. Consider cocaine use, which is sometimes normalized in industries such as finance and hospitality. Addicts who work in professional settings will typically downplay just how excessive their drug use is, even when their behavior indicates otherwise.
  • Showing up to work looking unwell: Everyone has the occasional rough weekend. Letting loose every now and again for holiday functions or family gathering may not be a cause for concern. But, for a functioning addict, this behavior may become a pattern, i.e. weekend-long binges that have them showing up like clockwork every Monday looking ill or lethargic. This is especially common with younger post-grad students who have trouble leaving their college binging days behind.
  • Associating with other drug users: Professionals struggling with addiction often surround themselves with other functioning addicts. This often allows them to pursue their addiction without shame, as socializing the behavior helps to normalize it. Unfortunately, this acts to reinforce their negative, unhealthy behaviors. If this is the case for your colleague, treatment opportunities that replace these unhealthy relationships with positive peer support networks are crucial.

Regardless of whether or not drug use is commonly accepted or tolerated in your workplace culture, its danger cannot be ignored. Just as critical to understand, though, is how to approach a co-worker about this stigmatized issue.

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Broaching the Subject of Addiction Treatment with a Coworker

The reality is, functioning addicts typically aren’t aware of (or ignore the severity of) their addiction. They might even perceive their partying as normal, a healthy way to relieve the stress of their job. This can be problematic when it comes to guiding them into treatment, especially as their co-worker. All it takes is one misstep to turn your positive intentions into overstepped boundaries.

If you feel close enough to the person in question, gently broaching the topic with them can work to get an honest conversation started. As long as you ensure that the reasons behind your actions are clear (i.e. your care and concern for their well-being), you might be able to connect with them without shaming them about their addiction.

An even safer route, though, is to connect with their family and loved ones. By communicating with those closest to your colleague, you can ensure that they receive encouragement at home as well as in the workplace.

Although many functioning addicts are unaware of or intentionally ignore the depth of their struggle, there are some that—deep down—know something is wrong. This is more likely the further the addiction has progressed, once they begin to realize that they aren’t as in control of their drug use as they believed themselves to be. It might initially be hard for them to admit to their addiction, but once they see the genuine concern that their loved ones and colleagues are expressing, they are more likely to acknowledge and listen to their own gut feelings—and then act on them in a positive, healing way.

Looking at the Bigger Picture of Addiction in the Workplace

As the coworker of a functioning addict, you are in a unique position. You probably have a wealth of insight into their behavior that family members may not, whether you realize it or not. Think about it, the workplace may be one of the only environments where their loved ones never see or interact with them. By leveraging your unique insight, you can act as a catalyst for positive changes in your colleague’s life that pave the way to recovery.

By using your influence in a supportive manner, you can encourage them to take the important first steps toward comprehensive residential drug addiction treatment. Within these programs, they will have the therapeutic tools necessary to better understand the causes of their drug addiction, as well as a support network of professionals to guide the course of their treatment. Whether they agree to an inpatient program or an intensive outpatient setting that will allow them to continue working, they will receive the necessary treatment to achieve the long-term goals of health, happiness, and freedom from addiction. Once their road to recovery is on its way, they will be thankful for those that helped them get their journey started in the first place.