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What Addiction Can Look Like in the Workplace

It isn’t always what you’d expect


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The rhetoric and media coverage surrounding alcohol addiction often paints a misleading picture. While the consequences of addiction - DUIs, loss of employment, loss of family and even homelessness absolutely happen, they don’t represent my story.

In my case, the early signs of addiction were more subtle, and I was able to maintain my family and work obligations. Because I was able to continue functioning “normally,” I was able to avoid addressing the problem.

I rationalized and drew lines around my behavior, so I didn’t have to seek help. One of the lines I drew was I wouldn’t call in sick to work because I was hungover. As long as I didn’t do that, I rationalized, my drinking couldn’t have been that bad. I’ve seen similar rationalizations time and time again in the years as a coach since then – “As long as I don’t do X, I’m OK.” A common one is not drinking before 5 p.m. or only drinking on weekends.

Even though I didn’t break my rule for several years, I still wasn’t my best self, especially at work. Before I got well, my work was average. I was getting by, doing what I had to do, but I wasn’t a very reliable or engaged employee.

I went to work brutally hungover many times. My sleep quality was poor, so I was tired or at least distracted and unfocused most work days. I suffered through headaches, nausea and other physical symptoms, but imagining life without alcohol was incomprehensible and frightening. I simply couldn’t comprehend a happy, fulfilling life without it, even though the opposite would eventually prove true.

My drinking was over the top, but I didn’t stand out. A lot of my coworkers were part of the same unhealthy culture; heavy drinking was accepted and often promoted among my sales cohort.

This continued for several years. I knew alcohol was a problem for me, but I was reluctant to give it up completely. I tried and failed to cut back multiple times. Those failures sent me a message, because I clearly couldn’t cut back like I wanted to.

Once I finally abstained from drinking entirely, I became a much happier, fulfilled person and employee. My transformation was subtle at first, but remarkable. I had more clarity and purpose at work, and ultimately became a valuable member of the team. I sold more product, fostered relationships with clients and coworkers, helped innovate products and was even awarded top salesman worldwide one year.

Even though I didn’t experience those “typical” – or rather, expected – alcohol-related consequences like legal trouble and family ultimatums, abstaining from alcohol made an incredible difference in my life.

My story is very common. There are millions of people whose lives are deeply and negatively impacted by drug use. The annual costs of addiction, especially to employers, are difficult to comprehend.

That’s what I try to get across to business leaders who doubt addiction is a problem in their companies. The reality is that the early stages of the disease are difficult to identify. There are so many people who are just like I was – adequate, but not meeting their full potential.

In my experience, the great majority of individuals who achieve addiction recovery experience profound positive changes in all parts of their lives, including their work and careers.

Dave Jansa is a program advisor and peer coach for Face It TOGETHER, a nonprofit focused on helping communities transform how they deal with the disease of addiction. He is long-term survivor of the chronic disease of addictio.

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