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Silence At Work:  An Enduring Issue

Silence At Work: An Enduring Issue

Substance abuse in the workplace is an issue in practically every sector of the economy.  From resource production to the arts, airlines to medicine, addiction is boundless and one’s professional occupation provides neither predictive caveats nor a preordained pardon.  Like any medical disease, what you do for a living is irrelevant.

Despite the difficulties addiction places on the workforce from acutely quantifiable costs such as lost time, injury (or worse) to the fundamentally incalculable affects on corporate culture and widespread problems in lost productivity – addiction remains a taboo topic that many organizational cultures prefer to silence.   Silence not because the impacts are minimal or unknown.  In many cases, not because of a lack of compassion for the employee.  The issue remains silent because of a simple premise; we still do not understand how to address substance abuse as it arises.  What criteria do we use to identify active addiction and/or alcoholism?  Do we need to wait for a near miss or an actualized incident?  A more relevant conundrum:  how do I present the issue and mitigate the risks?  Or in the words that many treatment professionals continue to hear from managers: when and how do I accuse my colleague of being an alcoholic or drug addict?  Have you ever heard of someone being accused of having cancer?  Accused of being diabetic?  Of course not, they are oxymoronic statements by definition.  These are cut and dried, black and white statements – you either have a disease or you don’t.

The painfully unsophisticated truth is that in many organizations addiction remains an issue considered easier to casually minimize than structurally address.  Sometimes, we would prefer enduring problems that we understand rather than adopting solutions we don’t.

Our self imposed barriers established by a collective unwillingness to address an issue of epidemic proportions are perpetuating the problem.  We should not understate the complexities either – many organizations have to deal with various levels of bureaucracies that add further challenges to addressing the issue.  Some simply silence the concern based on a murky sense of dignity through anonymity.  All of these factors have created a caste system of sorts that continue to allow addiction to thrive in our workplace systems.  Thrive in much the same way as it does in our family and communal systems.

Treatment professionals often refer to the “alcoholic or addicted family” and for good reason – consider these groups the petri dish of addiction, a confined setting harnessing the required environmental dynamics needed for addiction to endure over time.  For the disease to sustain long term, it takes more than just the addict.  In the case of our workplaces environments, it requires an atmosphere that allows the symptoms to thrive and silence provides just that.  It permeates the basic day to day operations that enable organizational structures and processes to account for the addict rather than treating the addiction.

A first step in preventing such a prime environment for addiction to flourish in our workforce is to educate ourselves away from work.  Let’s remember, addiction does not have an off switch that adjusts in sync with our timecards nor do the preconceived notions we take with us to work.

In order to educate our methods when addressing the issue of addiction in the workplace, it is imperative we evaluate and inform the perceptions we bring to the workplace.

Carson McPherson

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