Battling addiction in the workplace

Have you ever wondered, when a colleague is not performing or is “off ” for a period of time if anything is wrong? Maybe it’s stress, burnout, family problems or it could be the issue of the progression from use to misuse to abuse to dependence on a substance or compulsive behaviour. Without information, we can’t begin to understand what may be happening to someone we work with or care about. Maybe, we have an issue personally and don’t know how to identify it.

These days lawyers have to deal with many temptations, along with the classic alcohol and drug addictions, the Internet has made other addictions more pervasive than ever before. From online gambling to addiction to Internet porn, there are more demons than ever to deflect in today’s world of instant gratification.

Mental health issues are a big issue for the modern lawyer. In a 2008 study Susan Daicoff, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, noted approximately 20 per cent of the entire legal profession suffers from clinically significant levels of substance abuse, depression, anxiety or some other form of psychopathology, said a report in the National Law Journal.

There are two definitions of addiction I like:

  1. Addiction is a continued escalating repeated behaviour despite knowledge of negative consequences and knowledge of harm to self or others. Symptoms are biological, cognitive and behavioural, according to the Diagnostic Services Manual IV Mental Disorders. This is the classic act of doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
  2. “Alcoholism (addiction) is a brain disease. Addiction has been shown to have both a cause and effect relationship to changes in brain structure and function. It is a relationship that makes addiction a disease of the brain, not a moral failing,” according to Dr. Graeme Cunningham, addictions director, Homewood Health Services in Guelph, Ont.

The myths of addiction

Various fictions surround addictions. Here are some of them with the reasons they are invalid.

  1. Addicts need to hit rock bottom before they can accept help //
    Quite the contrary. “The earlier in the addiction process that you can intervene and get someone help, the more they have to live for,” says Kathleen Brady, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. The longer the addiction continues, the stronger it becomes and the harder it is to treat.
  2. Addiction is a willpower problem. People can stop, if they really want to //
    As the brain structure changes, addicts physically and emotionally depend on the substance they abuse. It causes the addict to crave the drug even more, making it increasingly difficult to quit.
  3. Addicts are bad, crazy or stupid. They just have a character flaw //
    Addiction is an equal opportunity disease. It can affect Park Avenue and park bench, young and old, educated and not. Addictions can hit young female lawyers just starting out, and it can hit older male lawyers close to retirement—addictions does not discriminate.
  4. Addicts should be punished, not treated for using substances// 
    Addicts need treatment for changed brain chemistry to learn to cope with control over use, identification of triggers and learning to resocialize and live without substances.
  5. Addiction is a disease: There is nothing you can do about it // 
    That does not mean that you are a helpless victim. The brain changes can be reversed through sobriety, therapy, medication and exercise.

If you are concerned what do you do?

This step is taking action. This is a difficult thing to do—to approach a colleague and indicate a concern and offer help. Personal behaviour is a private matter and crossing the boundary to suggest a problem or offer help is often considered out of bounds. Lawyers often practise alone and are isolated even if they work in a large law firm. There are things to consider before taking action that will help the process.

Be informed. Take the time to know the common signs of addiction and their results.

Be non-judgmental. It’s important
to make observations rather than
conclusions about the behaviour
you have noticed.

Be aware and alert. It is easy to
hope that this is not a problem and
that it will go away. It is easy to look
the other way and dismiss some of
the signs that you have identified.

Be concerned and caring. A first
approach should always be based
on concern for the individual, the
family and the law practice. You should not be threatening and accusatory as this will reinforce the denial that is so much part of any addictive behaviour.

Be honest and direct. Identify your concern and the thoughts behind it. If you have personal

experience with addiction in yourself or in your family or friends, it’s often helpful to include your thoughts and share your experience.

Approach the colleague with
It’s important to acknowledge the positives and the value that you hold for the other person based on your work together.

Know or find out the resources
for help.
Have options available to
offer and encourage. Be able to provide the contact information for your provincial lawyers’ assistance program (all numbers available at, an AA group or a
treatment centre.

Facilitate help. Offer to follow up
and/or support the person with any
decision to get further help or to think about the consequences.

Promote prevention. Your example and responsible behaviour is important.

There is no failure. No matter what happens as a result of the contact,
your colleague will remember that you took the time and made the
effort to show concern.

Helpful links:

Addiction comes in many forms, here are some websites that can help those
impacted by addiction:

Gamblers Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous
Cocaine Anonymous

When do you act? The sooner the better. You could help save a career and you could help save a life.