ADDICTION costs corporate America billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, absenteeism and higher health care expenses. It also derails many once-promising careers.
More companies are willing to offer assistance these days, especially as they deal with higher levels of employee stress from heightened workloads and job cuts. Yet many workers are still reluctant to take advantage of this help, for fear of jeopardizing their positions.
”Telling something so personal would have lessened my authority as a leader,” said a 65-year-old executive of a computer company in Philadelphia who recently returned from 28 days of treatment for alcoholism. ”As a manager, you have to create some distance between you and your employees.” The executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had arranged for the treatment himself at the Caron Foundation, a rehabilitation center in Wernersville, Pa.
He says his job has been business as usual since his return last spring, but he acknowledged making up a story about his extended absence, which he even gave to his boss. ”I told them I was overstressed and my doctor asked me to rest for a month,” he said.
Professionals in similar situations have many delicate issues to navigate. How, for example, can they avoid being stigmatized by colleagues? And how can they explain gaps on a résumé after a long treatment period?
Many employees who receive treatment — whether for alcoholism or for drug, gambling or food addictions — will undoubtedly have some difficulties in the beginning, experts say, but as they recover, so too will their careers.
Abuse of some drugs has been climbing in the workplace. According to Quest Diagnostics, which provides workplace drug tests, the number of workers and job applicants who tested positive for amphetamine use rose 17 percent in 2002 from the previous year. At the Waismann Institute, in Beverly Hills, Calif., 60 percent of the patients, mostly high-powered business people, are addicted to painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, up from about 10 percent four years ago, according to Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, the medical director there.
Given the weakness in the economy and the job market, none of this surprises Dr. Kenneth Siegel, a psychologist, and president of the Impact Group, an executive leadership consulting firm in Beverly Hills. In the economic downturn of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, he said, ”Valium suddenly become the most prescribed drug in America.” Similarly, today’s workers are seeking ways to curb their anxieties and depression, he said.
”I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of C.E.O.’s smoking pot or snorting cocaine in the company restroom,” Dr. Siegel said, ”but we are seeing executives abusing alcohol and popping prescription drugs.”
One of the biggest difficulties is seeking help in the first place. Managers may be surrounded by underlings who are more than willing to help cover up the problem. A recent survey by the Caron Foundation of its patients found that 75 percent of executives in recovery said they had secretaries or assistants who went to great lengths to cover for them. Ninety percent said their peers had to work extra hours to compensate for their addiction.
Bruce Cotter, a recovering alcoholic, said that when he was a sales executive for major television networks on the East Coast during the 1980’s, his assistants would routinely reschedule his appointments and even compile his sales reports. ”I had a whole army of people who would mop up my messes,” he said. Mr. Cotter now runs Bruce W. Cotter & Associates in Butler, Md., which intervenes on behalf of companies to provide treatment for addicted executives.
Another issue is confidentiality. Many workers, particularly executives, hesitate to seek help through their company’s employee assistance programs or human resources departments, out of fear of looking weak or even harming the company’s reputation.
”They feel that their company doesn’t need to have the burden of knowing their top V.P., or C.E.O., is having a problem,” said Dr. Scott C. Stacy, clinical program director for the Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, Kan., which treats executives for substance and behavioral problems, including gambling and sexual addiction.
To help make executives feel more comfortable about seeking help, some companies are offering programs that promise heightened confidentiality, according to Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, chief executive of the ComPsych Corporation in Chicago. ComPsych provides employee assistance programs to companies like General Electric, American Express, and Sprint. Meanwhile, Resources for Living in Austin, Tex., whose clients include Wal-Mart and Bridgestone, has a substance-abuse counseling program that can be completed entirely by phone.
William P. Schurgin, a partner at the Seyfarth Shaw law firm in Chicago, says employers are generally under no obligation to keep workers with untreated substance-abuse problems on the payroll. The Americans With Disabilities Act, he noted, does not protect these employees. But he added that employers were much more likely to support those who request help rather than those whose problems were discovered through drug testing or other means. ”Most companies are going to give you a second chance,” he said.
After seeking help, patients should avoid trying to keep up workloads during treatment.
Source: The New York Times
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