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The Working Professional & Substance Abuse

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It is estimated that 76% of people with drug and alcohol abuse problems hold a part-time or full-time job.1 One study reports that 7.1% of full-time professionals between the ages of 18 and 64 have used alcohol heavily in the past month, and 8% of the same population have used illicit drugs.1

Working professionals may turn to drugs or alcohol as they assume more responsibility—and, often, stress—in their careers. And drug use in the workplace brings with it unique challenges for the person struggling with the addiction, as well as for their co-workers, supervisors, and the company as a whole. This article explores the relationship between the professional worker and substance abuse.

Who, What, Why, and How

Professionals and executives who carry large workloads, put in long hours, and attend numerous work-related functions may find themselves experiencing chronic stress, which is a well-known risk factor for developing problematic substance abuse behaviors. Consequently, those in high-stress positions may be more prone, over time, to experience issues related to excessive drug and alcohol use, including addiction development.2

Substance abuse can compound issues already exacerbated by stress, since it is associated with a number of adverse medical consequences and can eventually affect cognition and mental health—leading to deficits in memory, mood swings, difficulty thinking, and an inability to make decisions.3 Over time, substance abuse can lead to addiction, which is characterized by a compulsive drug craving in which the person uses despite the negative consequences associated with it and despite attempts to quit.4

Studies have shown that the longer a person deals with chronic and prolonged stress, the higher the risk of engaging in behaviors that may lead to addiction. The way the brain functions during times of stress may increase the vulnerability to substance abuse as well, so when professionals experience chronic stress, using drugs becomes a way to cope.2

These high levels of stress can affect both young and old working adults. Those born between 1946 and 1964, also referred to as Baby Boomers, accounted for approximately 19% of the U.S. workforce in 2012. As this portion of the workforce ages, so does the number of working older adults with substance abuse disorders.1 One of the reasons for this it that the older working professional may struggle with more health conditions compared to their younger counterparts. Also, older adults may be more susceptible to the effects of drugs or alcohol due to interactions with medications and a slower metabolism. One study showed that older adults with alcohol problems were more likely to manage physical symptoms of pain with alcohol.1

Younger workers, by contrast, are more likely to binge drink or use illegal drugs compared to older working professionals. These behaviors can lead to missed work, poor job performance, and an increased risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace. Alcohol and drug use may also increase a young professional’s risk of heart disease, cancer, and liver disease, as well as worsen pre-existing diabetes or mental health disorders.1 The more the young professional abuses drugs or alcohol, the higher the risk of long-term physical and mental health problems, including addiction.

Some professionals may have less free time in which to exercise, eat well, rest, and engage in other healthy stress-relief activities. People in these challenging professional roles may even be exposed to unhealthy coping strategies at work. Engaging in excessive drinking during client meetings or taking pills to increase energy and alertness may become a normal occurrence in the life of a professional attempting to accomplish many goals.


The physical and mental effects of substance abuse can impair the working professional’s ability to keep up with work and other commitments. As the issues progress, the drug user’s colleagues may also begin to notice changes in their coworker’s behavior.

Below is a list of some common physical, mental, and social effects of substance abuse and addiction that you may notice in a working professional.

The user may:3

  • Spend a lot of time alone.
  • Lose interest in certain activities or hobbies.
  • Become messy, such as not bathing, changing clothes, or brushing teeth.
  • Become depressed.
  • Be unable to remain alert and awake.
  • Be very energetic, talk fast, or say things that do not make sense.
  • Be in a bad mood, nervous, or cranky.
  • Have sudden and constant mood changes.
  • Sleep at odd hours or fall asleep at work.
  • Miss important meetings, appointments, or events.
  • Eat a lot more or a lot less than usual and experience weight gain or loss.
  • Engage in violence both inside and outside of the home.
  • Have financial problems.
  • Cause trouble at work.
  • Have relationship troubles with friends and family.
  • Engage in child abuse or neglect their child(ren).
  • Suffer from accidents.
  • Experience an overall loss of efficiency.
  • Engage in theft or other legal and criminal issues.

The most commonly reported problems for those using drugs in the workplace are:5

  • Increased use of health services and insurance benefits: Drug and alcohol abusers use their medical benefits 300% more than non-abusers, which could be a direct result of the drug use itself or other health problems caused by or made worse by drug abuse.
  • Increased absenteeism: Many users may find it difficult to make it to work on time every day or may be absent more than usual. This may be due to hangovers, the continued effects of the drug, or to the employee seeking or using drugs during work hours.
  • More frequent job turnover: The professional may have a difficult time keeping a job due to drug abuse issues.
  • Increased risk of workplace accidents: One study reports that 47% of all industrial accidents in the U.S. are related to drugs and alcohol. In fact, drug and alcohol abusers file about 5 times as many workers’ compensation claims as non-abusers.
  • Decreased productivity: The professional may find it difficult to keep up with work expectations when actively using, leading to poor work performance.


“Detoxification is the process of allowing the body to rid itself of a drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.6 Detox is only the first stage of addiction treatment and does not change long-term drug use—alone, it is rarely enough to achieve a long-term end to the drug use. Still, for many people, it is needed to begin an effective drug addiction treatment program, which may include behavioral therapy or medication.6,7

Detox for the professional worker comes with its own unique issues. The person may need extra confidentiality to ensure that colleagues do not know about the drug abuse issues, or a special detox program that allows the user to continue working while receiving treatment.

When drug abuse affects the professional’s work life, their employer may offer assistance. Some common ways employers help an employee with treatment are:5

  • Providing comprehensive health benefits that offer coverage for substance use disorders, including aftercare and counseling.
  • Educating other employees to help reduce the stigma of drug abuse in the workplace.
  • Offering company wellness programs that provide healthy ways to cope with the daily stressors of a professional work life.
  • Offering paid time off to attend treatment.
  • Allowing support groups to meet at work, providing easy access to keep up with the long-term commitment of recovery.

After completing detox, many people transition into either an outpatient or inpatient substance abuse treatment program that lasts between a few weeks to a few months.8 Throughout a course of outpatient treatment, a person must travel to a hospital or other treatment facility for a few days (in some cases, every day) during the workweek for treatment sessions. Inpatient or residential treatment options require them to live at the treatment facility for the entire duration of the program.8

Some rehabilitation programs specialize in treating working professionals and are designed to address the specific needs of such executives, with an added level of confidentiality. Some executive treatment facilities may also allow the professional to continue to work remotely while simultaneously receiving treatment.

Employers and the U.S. government have addressed substance use in the workplace for many years and have implemented programs or policies aimed at detecting and preventing substance use in employees.5 These programs may contain one or more components, including:1,5,9

  • Policy statement: Clearly stated policies about the use of illicit drugs and the consequences of using them in the workplace.
  • Employee orientation and drug-awareness education programs: Offering education about drug abuse and how it is addressed in the workplace.
  • Supervisor training: Training supervisors in recognizing signs and symptoms of drug abuse in the workplace and providing tips on how to prevent it.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAP): EAPs are workplace-based programs designed to address substance abuse and other problems that negatively affect the employee’s well-being or job performance. Many EAPs include intervention and treatment referral components and typically offer a set number of free counseling visits. These services can be started through self-referral by the employee or required by the company due to poor job performance.
  • Drug testing: Drug testing can be required at different times by the employer, including pre-employment, random, and post-accident. This testing may be for specific drugs as set by the employer.

If you are a working professional struggling with a drug addiction, you are not alone—addiction and substance abuse–related issues are not uncommon among working professional in high-stress environments. There are several resources, such as this site’s treatment directory, that can help you begin your journey to recovery.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Issue Brief #1 For Employers.
  2. Muszil, D., Avelino, A., & Matesz, K., et al. (2009). Chronic Stress, Drug Use and Vulnerability to Drug Addiction. NIH Public Access.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Easy to Read Drug Facts: What is Addiction?
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says.
  5. Fay, C. Drug Testing in the Workplace: An historical and economic examination. Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Frequently Asked Questions.
  7. National Institute of Health. (2016). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction.
  8. Hayashida, M. (1998). An overview of outpatient and inpatient detoxification. Alcohol Health and Research World.
  9. Merrick, E.S.L., Volpe-Vartainian, J., Horgan, C.M., McCann, B. (2007). Revisiting Employee Assistance Programs and Substance Use Problems in the Workplace: Key Issues and a Research Agenda. Psychiatric Services.

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