Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Business Executives

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, managers have the third highest rate of illicit drug use and the seventh highest rate of heavy alcohol use among all occupational groups. If you’re a manager currently struggling with a substance abuse problem, you are not alone.

drug use in executives

Addiction as a Response to a High Pressure Environment

Substance abuse problems can occur at any age, but the way in which they manifest varies across demographic groups. Young people often turn to experimenting with drugs or alcohol out of simple curiosity or peer pressure. For business executives, however, drug abuse typically begins as a way to cope with work-related stress.

executive drug abuse

Negotiating multimillion-dollar contracts, making difficult decisions to ensure a company’s financial future and sacrificing family time to meet corporate goals can take a toll on even the most dedicated employee. To make matters worse, positive methods of coping with stress such as exercising regularly and making sure you’re getting enough sleep can seem almost impossible to manage on top of your current professional obligations. The human body is made to function in blocks of three: eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for personal care. When this balance is out of whack, stress will accumulate no matter how much you enjoy your job.

In addition to general work-related stress, executives often report that concerns about the economy can trigger the urge to abuse drugs and alcohol. Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, economic growth has been sluggish across the board. With consumer confidence lagging and regular downsizing still common in many industries, it’s a tough time to be in a leadership role. After all, even the most accomplished executive can’t single-handedly control the economy as a whole.

Company culture can also play a part in promoting drug and alcohol abuse. The tech industry, for example, has struggled with talented employees turning to stimulants to keep up with the demand to work 12-hour days with little or no down time in between. A previous Mercury News article describes a common progression up the “ladder” of addiction—executives start with Adderall to keep up with production demands and then progress to downers such as oxycodone to take the edge off when they finally return home to their families. In this scenario, what begins with a commendable work ethic eventually turns into a professional liability.

Prescription Drug Abuse Is on the Rise

When the general public thinks of drug abusers, the first thing that comes to mind is someone addicted to illegal substances like heroin or cocaine. However, prescription drug abuse is on the rise and presents an equally serious concern. Opioid painkillers are the mostly commonly abused prescription drugs, but Science Times reports that abuse of Concerta, Adderall and Vyvanse is particularly prevalent among white collar workers ages 25 to 45.

business executives abusing drugs and alcohol

Prescription drug abusers often start out taking the medication for a legitimate purpose, such as a back injury. They discover they like the effects of the drug, so they start increasing the dosage and developing a tolerance for the medication. From there, it’s easy to spiral out of control. Eventually, they’re lying about their symptoms, obtaining prescriptions from multiple doctors or illegally purchasing pills from others.

Prescription drug use can problematic for baby boomers who may have experimented with illicit drugs as young adults. Experiencing the “high” without the stigma surrounding traditional forms of drug abuse can spur the urge to misuse their medication. Their abuse often goes undetected for longer periods of time due to the fact that addiction is more commonly associated with younger people.

It’s important to realize that prescription drugs are safe only when used under a doctor’s supervision. When they are misused, they can cause the same types of health issues and relationship problems associated with any other form of substance abuse. A business executive abusing prescription medication is just as in need of treatment as someone who is abusing illicit drugs.

Risk Factors and Signs of Executive Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is a complex medical issue, regardless of whether you’re abusing prescription medication or using illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, heroin and hallucinogens.

Your vulnerability to drug addiction is determined by several interconnected risk factors:

  • Gender: Men are statistically more likely to struggle with substance abuse problems than women. However, the progression of addiction occurs more rapidly among female drug users.
  • Family History: Having parents, siblings or other close relatives who have struggled with addiction places you at a higher risk of drug abuse. This is due to both genetic and environmental risk factors.
  • Mental Health History: A history of depression or anxiety disorders places you at a higher risk of drug abuse, as people with these conditions often tend to turn to drugs as a form of self-medication. ADHD is also known to increase the prevalence of drug abuse.
  • Childhood Trauma: Childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse can leave lasting scars which manifest in the form of drug abuse. Your vulnerability increases if you never received therapy to help you cope with the trauma.
  • Choice of Drug: Some drugs have a higher potential for addiction than others. Stimulants and painkillers, for example, are particularly addictive. Your preferred method of drug administration also plays a role. Studies have shown that smoking or injecting a drug increases the risk of addiction.

The signs of drug abuse include:

  • You place drug use on the same level as eating, sleeping and other essential survival behaviors. When you wake up, one of your first thoughts is how soon you’ll be able to use.
  • You take risks that jeopardize your career, your family and your friendships in order to pursue your drug use.
  • Your sleeping patterns have changed. You may find yourself sleeping more often than normal or suffering from chronic insomnia.
  • You no longer enjoy other activities that use to be of interest, such as a playing tennis or watching football with your friends.
  • You lie about your drug use when confronted by others. When confronted with your lies, you become defensive or physically aggressive.
  • If you’re unable to use the substance, you don’t feel as though you can control your behavior or think clearly.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse Among Business Executives

Alcohol abuse is the most common form of substance abuse in the United States. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports than 1 in every 12 adults suffers from alcohol abuse or dependence.  However, since alcohol is legal and widely available, it’s often trickier for business executives to determine when their drinking has become problematic. A professional who regularly enjoys a few drinks at an evening business meeting and comes home to relax with a bottle of wine may not immediately realize that he has been drinking to excess.

Heavy alcohol use is defined as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on five or more days each month. This includes drinking at social occasions as well as drinking at home alone. The following are also widely considered warning signs of alcohol abuse:

  • You find yourself neglecting responsibilities at work, such as arriving late for meetings or missing deadlines. In some cases, you show up for work intoxicated or hungover.
  • You engage in risky behaviors when you drink, such as drinking and driving or seeking out unsafe sexual encounters.
  • You continue to drink heavily even though friends and family have expressed concern about your behavior or asked you to cut back on your alcohol consumption.
  • You drink to de-stress instead of relying on more productive coping strategies such as exercising, meditating or discussing your problems with a trusted friend.
  • Your tolerance for alcohol is increasing, leading you to drink more to obtain the same mood-altering effects.
  • When you are unable to drink you experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, shakiness, sweating, insomnia, depression, headaches and loss of appetite.
  • You want to stop drinking, but find it difficult to control your alcohol use on your own. When you see others drinking, you begin to experience a craving for alcohol.

Alcohol abuse among business executives often occurs in conjunction with some form of drug use. This can be dangerous because of the interactions between substances. For example, taking narcotic painkillers while drinking alcohol can slow heartbeat and breathing while drinking alcohol and taking cocaine can increase the risk of heart attack.

Simultaneous substance abuse is formally known as polydrug addiction. When someone suffers from polydrug addiction, both forms of addiction must be treated together to help the patient begin his or her path to recovery.

Consequences of Addiction

Addiction is defined as a craving for a specific substance, loss of control over the use of the substance and continued use of the substance regardless of the adverse effects. Untreated substance abuse problems have serious physical, emotional, professional, financial and legal consequences:

  • Physical: The physical consequences of addiction vary depending upon the substance that is being abused, but can include organ damage, hormonal imbalances and neurological deficits. Some of this damage is permanent, but many effects can be minimized by following a healthy diet and getting regular exercise after you’ve completed a treatment program.
  • Emotional: Addiction strains relationships with loved ones due to the tendency of substance abusers to place their drug or alcohol use above commitments to friends and family. The loss of personal ties in turn creates additional stress which can push the substance abuser further into addiction.
  • Professional: The law generally allows private employers to conduct drug tests on current employees when their positions carry safety risks or if the employer has a valid reason to suspect the employee is under the influence. Failing a drug test or refusing to comply with a test request could result in dismissal from your position. Finding a new position will be difficult, as the majority of employers in the United States require drug tests for all new employees.
  • Financial: It’s not uncommon for substance abusers to borrow from savings accounts or money set aside for general household living expenses. Some even max out credit cards, dip into retirement funds or empty a child’s college savings account. If left untreated, addiction can be a direct factor in the need to file for bankruptcy protection.
  • Legal: You may be arrested for driving under the influence, have your professional license revoked or end up with a criminal record that can severely limit your future employment prospects. Your legal troubles will likely result in fees and fines that can further add to your financial difficulties.

Dopamine’s Role in Addiction

drug abuse among business executives
One common misconception about substance abuse is that overcoming addiction is just a matter of willpower. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Prolonged drug or alcohol use alters your brain chemistry to result in cravings that make it impossible to quit by force of will alone.

To understand addiction, you must realize that your brain registers all forms of pleasure in the same way. Whether you’re enjoying a delicious meal, spending time with your spouse or taking a psychoactive drug, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in to the nucleus accumbens. Lying beneath the cerebral cortex, the nucleus accumbens is commonly referred to as the brain’s pleasure center.

Substance abuse creates a surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. According to Harvard Health Publications, addictive substances can release up to 10 times the level of dopamine that natural rewards do. These substances also create a quicker and more reliable form of dopamine release, which leads to the “high” that an abuser experiences.

alcohol abuse among business executives

Dopamine then interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to hijack the brain’s reward-related learning system. After repeated exposure, your brain becomes highly motivated to seek out this specific source of pleasure. As time passes, the motivation to use again eventually starts to take precedence over other activities you previously enjoyed. When this happens, you’ve crossed the line between simply liking something and becoming addicted to it.

Unfortunately, your body is developing a tolerance for the abused substance just as your brain is becoming more inclined to seek out the pleasurable dopamine release. This means you’ll need to take more of the drug or drink larger quantities of alcohol to experience the same mood-altering effects. This increase in tolerance is dangerous because it increases the risk of physical damage to the body due to substance abuse.

As tolerance increases, compulsion takes over. When the pleasure from the dopamine release subsides, the body immediately starts wanting to recreate the experience. This creates cravings that make it difficult to abstain from future substance abuse—regardless of your level of willpower.

Seeking Substance Abuse Treatment

drug use in executives

Sometimes, business executives struggling with substance abuse rationalize avoiding treatment by saying they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Admitting you need help can feel overwhelming, but seeking treatment early is the best way to put yourself on the road to recovery. There’s no need to wait until you’ve lost it all to get the help you need. A proactive approach increases the odds of success.

Drug or alcohol addiction is considered a form of medical disability. This means that you are entitled to take a medical leave of absence from your employer in order to treat your substance abuse under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

FMLA allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without fear of losing your position, assuming you’ve been employed for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months before the date the leave is scheduled for. However, not all employers are covered by FMLA. A covered employer is typically defined as a public agency, public or private elementary or secondary school or a private sector employer with 50 or more employees. Small businesses are not required to provide FMLA leave due to the difficulty of keeping an employee’s position open with minimal options for replacement staff.

You will likely need to produce a note from your doctor stating the need for a medical leave of absence, but your doctor doesn’t need to state the reason why leave is necessary. If you do not feel your employer would be supportive, you are not obligated to disclose the reason for your absence. You have a legal right to privacy.

If you are not eligible for FMLA leave, or believe your employer will not be open to allowing a leave of absence, seeking an executive rehab center may be a viable alternative. These types of programs are designed to meet the needs of busy professionals and encourage clients to keep up with their work responsibilities while obtaining substance abuse treatment. They allow smartphones, laptops and other work-related tools to keep you connected to the outside world as much as possible. With an executive rehab, the goal is to help you learn to manage your addiction in the context of your daily life.

Executive rehab centers also offer another important advantage: strict adherence to client confidentiality. Substance abuse is nothing to be ashamed of, but professionals in the public eye may prefer an environment where discretion is a priority. An executive rehab center lets you focus on your recovery without worrying about gossip damaging your reputation.

Getting the Help You Need at 12 Keys

executive drug abuse

No matter how educated or successful you are, beating addiction requires professional help. To recover from substance abuse, you’ll need continuous assessment, personalized counseling and regular monitoring by trained professionals.

12 Keys Rehab offers clients medically assisted withdrawal help and mental or behavioral health counseling in a supportive environment, with special programs designed for clients with a dual diagnosis.  The facility is filled with amenities such as lush gardens, relaxing porches, large swimming pools and a waterfront view as well as organized activities such as fishing, beach volleyball, snorkeling, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding. Staff members are available 24/7 to provide the support needed to promote a healthy and productive sober lifestyle.

Recovering From a Relapse

business executives abusing drugs and alcohol
If you’ve been in treatment before and had a relapse, don’t give up. Setbacks don’t mean that you’ve failed or that your efforts to overcome your addiction are hopeless.

Addiction is not a character flaw or a personal weakness. It is a chronic illness. Much in the way that diabetes requires lifelong care, addiction is a condition that must be managed over time. You wouldn’t criticize a diabetic for a high blood sugar reading, so there’s no need to give up on your own recovery if you experience a relapse.

Sometimes, all you need is a different treatment approach to get back on track. Struggles with addiction are deeply personal, which means there is no one-size-fits-all treatment approach. It may take some time to find a method that works best for you. Strive to be patient and forgiving with yourself as you work through the recovery process.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites stress as a major risk factor for a substance-abuse relapse. If you’re struggling to stay sober, you may need additional assistance developing coping mechanisms that will work for your unique situation as a busy business executive. 12 Keys can help by offering compassionate and empathetic care from counselors with firsthand experience in the challenge of overcoming addiction. The 12 Keys program also includes extensive aftercare planning to assist clients in managing the stress of everyday living without turning to drugs or alcohol. Contact us today to start working towards lifelong sobriety.

The Addiction Blog