VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: A silent productivity killer: executives with addictions

April 10, 2006

Productivity losses-every business executive looks for ways to avoid them. Yet, an astonishing $40 billion in productivity gains were lost last year due to preventable selfinflicted behavior.

This productivity killer typically openly manifests itself on days like Jan. 2, or more recently, on the Monday after the Super Bowl, when an estimated 1.4 million Americans called in sick after a Sunday of intense partying.

A big loser? Indiana's economy

This major loss in productivity reflects rapidly growing excessive alcohol use and, to a slightly lesser extent, drug abuse. A few years ago a major study by the National Institutes of Health estimated the total cost of alcohol and drug abuse to the nation's economy to top $246 billion. What kind of company could long tolerate those levels of debilitating costs?

Hoosiers too often look the other way when it comes to alcohol or drug abuse-especially when it involves a top executive or manager. Popular literature likens the situation to "an elephant in the boardroom."

Everyone basically "knows" when a growing alcohol or drug-related problem exists with an executive or manager. But few are often adequately prepared to deal with it, particularly if the impaired executive still produces high business volume.

"Bill's been having a lot of problems," some well-meaning management colleagues may rationalize. "But he's certainly not a skid-row drunk. He'll get over it."

The fact remains that only 3 percent of active alcoholics ever end up on some kind of fictional "skid row." Most people who abuse alcohol or use illegal drugs-including Indiana executives and managers-are presently employed, as recently reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The report identified nearly 16 percent of Americans as dangerous "binge drinkers," pointing out that 81 percent of this number are presently employed. Another 12.4 million Americans were identified as "heavy drinkers," and 80 percent of those were currently working in blue collar and executive positions.

Overlooking the obvious

The sobering statistics point out this: You already likely have people under your corporate roof who are making alcoholinfluenced decisions, suffering workplace accidents because of being hung over, or blowing sales calls by showing up impaired-if they show up at all.

Alcohol abusers-particularly with the still-remaining social custom of taking a drink or two at an Indianapolis lunch and the ubiquitous "happy hour" ritual-remain more accepted by their non-alcoholic peers before a problem manifests itself. However, drug use-illegal or prescription-can accelerate productivity problems and health challenges much more rapidly.

For example, the devastation surrounding executive cocaine or "crack" use registers near-complete personal annihilation if not checked in time.

I know of one individual, now in recovery from an alcohol and drug addiction, who went from a strong six-figure sales position and an enviable lifestyle to being penniless, divorced and nearly on the street in barely six months after developing a crack habit. The shocking loss to his family, his friends and to his company was heart-rending.

There is help

The good news is that tragic addictions can be prevented, or at least minimized, with early intervention and positive options. Considerable research shows that a workplace benefits substantially by openly addressing addiction through highlevel policies, providing employee assistance programs or human resourcesadministered interventions that privately enable an active alcoholic or addict to get professional help.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that senior executives with addictions experience recovery rates as high as 90 percent. But the same study warns that recovery isn't an overnight process-it requires professional treatment and aftercare services.

Simply put, alcoholism and drug dependency represent conditions that strike at every level of society. The descent into addiction may take different paths, but the net result is just the same for the bluecollar worker or the executive with an MBA: economic loss, severe health complications, even death.

Heeding addiction warning signs-including a DUI, boasting of avoiding a DUI, out-of-character verbal abuse, early work departures or consistently late arrivals, alcohol-tinged breath or excessive use of breath mints and odor-masking cough lozenges, missed staff meetings or unexplained work lapses-can save productivity losses, and more importantly, help rescue a life.

Addictions represent a disease, not a lack of character. If you want corporate wellness and the productivity gains it brings, then demand and enforce a drugfree workplace. But at the same time, remember that the human condition can bring down almost any individual, particularly if the cause is environmental or hereditary.

Extend a hand of help to those impaired at your company, and reap the rewards of recovery.
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