How Alcohol and Substance Abuse Can Destroy Your Executive Career

Studies have shown that a small glass of wine can increase creative thinking. While this works well for jobs that require brainstorming, consequences can be equally harmful when focus and concentration are essential at work. Most of us know someone who drinks or uses substances. The majority of these people have normal jobs and families and while they believe that they control this usage, the first signs that prove the opposite, come from the people around them - their colleagues.

A statistic from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD), shows that 24% workers reported drinking during the workday at least once a year. Manual workers appear with the highest ratio of drinking at work, while employees that work in retail represent the lowest percentage. Without a doubt, the effects of alcohol and drugs usage can be immense for someone’s career. Regardless of past success, chemical dependencies could jeopardize their professional present and their potential future.

Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences
— NCADD

At a glance, being intoxicated at work could impair judgment, decrease concentration and inevitably, lead to wrong decisions. Inability to meet deadlines, tendency to forget, lack of attention to details, could have an impact on professional growth.

Breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16% of emergency room patients injured at work.
— NCADD

Cocaine users believe that by using the substance, they can stay on top of things. It is their way of managing the stress levels, feeling super energetic while working overtime. For this article we interviewed an executive who wished to remain anonymous, throughout this article we will refer to him as P. A. — P. A. is a former stockbroker at a reputable firm in the City of London, "Have you watched ‘The Wolf of Wall Street?'" He says, "my life was exactly like that. When I started working there, I felt like I was in heaven. Parties, women. I made more money in a day than others can make in a month. My life was between London, New York, and Tokyo. I worked a lot, all I could think about was how I would make more money. Soon, I was introduced to cocaine. Everyone was doing it; I was doing cocaine even with my boss. It was my only way to tranquilize my anxiety. I spoke to my drug dealer, more often than I called my clients. Soon, it was impossible to work without cocaine, but as long as the numbers were going up, everything was ok.”

Chronic alcohol and substances usage can also cause visible changes in someone’s body. Fatigue, headache, nausea, are only some of the noticeable effects. Alcohol and drugs would also cause insomnia, that would eventually lead to lateness or absenteeism and frequent calls-in sick. Extensive drug users show higher levels of aggression. Conflicts with colleagues become frequent, as drug users tend to be intolerant, lie or make up excuses, to cover up low performance.

P.A. has been unemployed for the past three years. “The stock market is a very dynamic and unstable environment. When I started working at the firm, I was just a graduate student ready to work. Soon, I was able to buy property in the area of London. But similar to your gains, equally great can be the loses. When one day my managed portfolio hit the red, in other words, a few million in losses, the only way to manage pressure was more cocaine.”

Nootropics or “Smart drugs”, are the new trend for the corporate executives. Widely used by university students, the cognitive-enhancing supplements promise a boost in memory and concentration. Modafinil, Adderall, and Ritalin are the most popular prescription medicines that healthy people use to perform better in their mental activities with low risk. While studies from Harvard University support this theory (when used for short periods), there are not enough data available about their long-term misuse. Some say that they could lead to addiction as Modafinils are considered to have the same effects as cocaine in the brain, by increasing the dopamine.

Among the broad occupation groups showing the highest rates of workplace alcohol use and impairment are the management occupations, sales occupations, arts/entertainment/sports/media occupations, food preparation and serving occupations, and building and grounds maintenance occupations. (University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions)

"When my performance at work started to drop, everything changed," confesses P.A., "in few days, the loses in my managed portfolio were some million dollars. I was dealing with pressure and criticism from my boss, on top of the pressure, I felt by myself. The answer to my problems was simple. During most hours of the day, I was more often high than sober. I had to find a way to recover the loses. I started taking impulsive decisions, without thinking clearly. “

In the U.S., 77% of all illicit drug users are employed either full or part-time.
— NCADD

From the employer’s point of view, according to the NCADD, drug abuse at work costs them about $81 billion per year. This cost is calculated based on the lack of productivity and work performance, with absenteeism and lateness contributing to the overall loses. On top of the aforementioned individual side-effects, we should also consider the potential impact on their co-workers. To improve the work environment and support their personnel, employers look into Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and Drug-Free Workplace Programs (DFWP), where employees can be redirected to the community for help. While drug abuse at work is costly, replacing a formerly valuable employee could be even worse. Unless an employee violates the company policies, they should be treated as a patient, hence be encouraged to follow treatment.

“I knew that I was counting my last days in the company,” said P.A. “Everyone’s behavior changed dramatically. I felt uncomfortable when I was in the office. I was hopeless trying to get back in the game and the only realistic solutions to my problem at this point, were drugs and alcohol. To make things worse, I was arrested by police just when I arrived at home. Of course, a few days later I was notified to be let go by the company, due to violating their internal policy about drugs abuse. Although I never confirmed how police got to ‘knock on my door’, indications were pretty clear. I currently work as a freelancer, occasionally doing some cocaine for fun but definitely, my days in the stock market are over.”

Drug screening in the workplace as a prevention method is preferred by the vast majority of employers. While some drug-testing companies claim that the above action can decrease the number employees who use substances at work. Others claim that it actually pushes them from cannabis (detectable in the urine for longer) to harder drugs that disappear from the system more quickly. However, drug-testing doesn’t address the real issue, which is whether the employee functions efficiently at work or not.

As a conclusion, while employers are not entitled to dictate a “proper way of life” to their employees, they have all the rights to protect their assets. The healthy relationship between them should be based on mutual trust and not by hiding problems under the rug. As employees spend more of their day in the workplace, it should be considered as their second family. Alcohol or drugs abuse should be discussed to find an effective treatment.