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Addiction Stigmas and Workplace Productivity

Stigmas don’t Reflect Evolution of Addiction

Junkies, prostitutes, dilapidated homes, scattered needles – these are all images often associated with addiction. As stigmas associated with addiction change and morality and emotions become less involved in drug policies and approaches, how we visualize a person with addiction continues to evolve. Addiction affects everyone – either directly or as a person affected by another’s substance abuse.

Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, doctors, veterans, teachers, brothers, sisters, bosses, co-workers – these titles can all fit the image if a person struggling with addiction. Often times, you won’t even be aware of a person is facing this life obstacle. People often believe that those with addictions are obvious because their lives are collapsing and destructing around them. People who believe this think it should be easy to spot someone suffering from addictions and substance dependencies. However, this has changed as drug use and addictions have evolved.

“Functioning” Alcoholics & Addicts

We call them functioning alcoholics or addicts because their lives are still fully functioning. They maintain careers and may even flourish in them. They have families with a spouse and kids. Their finances may look better than yours. They appear in good health, are physically fit, and dress well. You’re probably thinking, “This ‘person’ is more successful than I am. How could they possibly have an addiction?” That’s the point. Conventional stigmas no longer accurately portray a person with an addiction. Only when a person’s addiction becomes out of control (which it will eventually if it’s an addiction) do their struggles become apparent.

Of course, many will go to great lengths to hide the symptoms and signs of their self-destruction because they want to avoid being labeled with the stigma of addiction. Who can blame them? Addiction and its symptoms are multi-faceted, yet many of us still choose to see them through a single, limiting lens – one usually depicting a person as either not morally sound or too defective or diseased to live a fully-functioning human life.

Addiction in the Workplace

Knowing this discrepancy in our understanding of addiction, it should be of great concern for employers to address this health issue appropriately and compassionately. Recent studies have shown working-age adults experience the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths. Hiding an issue such as addiction can be more costly to a business or organization than having that employee seek and receive help for it right away.

Individuals in active addiction will spend much of their time planning when they can engage their addiction substance or behaviour next. When the addiction becomes overpowering, most areas of an addicted person’s life begin to collapse. When a person’s addiction becomes uncontrollable, he or she can become distracted from their work and slower to complete tasks once easily achievable. They may also begin forgetting to perform certain work responsibilities and, overall, become less productive in their position. Their forgetfulness begins to affect other areas of the organization and its overall performance.

Socially, these employees may begin to struggle at work as well. They become short-tempered and rude to co-workers. They suddenly struggle to take criticism or feedback because they’re already receiving enough pressure from other areas of life (e.g. family). Eventually these employees begin to isolate themselves as co-workers increasingly struggle to interact with them.

Employer Support

As an employer, you’re shocked by this rapid change in personality and work ethic. You may begin to think this job is no longer the right fit for said employee and are considering terminating this employee or sending them on leave. For many, however, termination is not a first option and thank goodness for that. Helping an employee find the appropriate support for their health issues can allow them to regain their productivity and ability to perform career duties. If you address the issue quickly, it can reduce the amount of unproductiveness and inefficiency that may occur during the escalation of an addiction.


I encourage employers and management, if they haven’t already, to educate themselves on the current rate of mental health and addiction in North America. A business’ management team should also seek out resources and literature for mental health and addictions in the workplace so they can support employees as best possible.

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