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A PERSONAL STORY OF ADDICTION AT WORK

July 1, 2006
by BOB POZNANOVICH
| Reprints
A struggle with cocaine led one corporate executive to start a company to help businesses with addiction in the workplace

As a young man I was very career-motivated and was rewarded with success quickly. By the time I was 30 years old, I was vice-president of sales for Zenith Data Systems, a billion-dollar subsidiary of Zenith Electronics Corp. I was in charge of hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. I was on top of my career and had the world in my hands, but I forgot all of the lessons I learned growing up on the streets in Chicago—that bad things happen to people who do drugs.

I remember one evening in particular when I was at a party in an exclusive Gold Coast neighborhood in downtown Chicago and someone introduced me to cocaine. It was the mid-1980s and I had heard about cocaine; it was the drug of the rich and famous. I wanted to be rich and famous, too. I had made it, I was a corporate executive, and so were these people. So I tried cocaine, and I loved it and its effect. It maximized my strengths and minimized my weaknesses (or so I thought at the time). I was addicted immediately, but it would take years and the loss of my fiancée, my job, and almost my life before I realized that I had a problem.

It's difficult to look back and remember the effect my drug use had on my company, employees, customers, friends, and family. These people respected me, and I let everyone down. Obviously this was a destructive time for my family and me, along with the company and its employees and customers. The sad part for them, and for me, was that nobody was able to help. Not only was I in denial about my addiction, but most of my coworkers were in denial, as well. What's worse, those who weren't in denial didn't know what to do.

I learned many years later that there were many meetings at work about me but never a meeting with me. The result was that my addiction continued to grow, and I ultimately lost my job and everything else that was important to me.

Where Did They Go Wrong?

Looking back at that point in my life, it became clear to me that if the company had stepped in and talked to me, had done some form of intervention early on, I would have gotten help immediately. I would have gone to treatment, and I would have stopped using drugs. Work and my career were so important that I would have done anything to save them. But instead I thought that I had it under control, that I would be able to quit drugs on my own. “I'll quit tomorrow,” I would say to myself—but tomorrow never came. Fortunately, I was able to get to treatment several years after I was fired; unfortunately, I had to lose almost everything before I was willing to get help.

I know that my story is similar to many in business today, and I know that many companies and employees are making the same mistakes. Most companies have a drug-free workplace policy and some form of EAP; these are steps in the right direction, but we need to do more. Companies need to be more proactive to face addictions and other compulsive behaviors in the workplace. They need to create environments where employees and managers are trained on how to identify and deal with these behaviors properly. Early intervention works, and companies need to develop strategies to deal with issues before crises develop.
 

After treatment I was fortunate to have a second chance to build a career again in the business world. When I returned to working life, I decided not to keep my recovery a secret. I let people know my story, and I was surprised to find out many people had friends, family members, and associates who were struggling with addictions. The more I talked to people, the more they opened up and shared their concerns, feelings, and fears, as well as their frustrations, on not knowing what to do with addictions in their homes and offices. This gave me a business idea.

In many ways I was much more successful in business after treatment than I ever was before—but there was something missing. I had lost interest in selling products and services that really didn't make a difference to people. I was motivated to help people, and I believed there was a way to do that and build a business, as well. I left comfortable corporate America and took a leap of faith.

My new company, Addiction Intervention Resources, Inc., has made a lot of progress raising the issue of addiction in business and educating others, but we have a lot of work to do. Many corporations are still in the dark with regard to addictions in the workplace. Denial is a huge factor. Many use the strategy of “don't ask, don't tell,” and if there is a problem, executives don't want to know about it unless there is a drug- or alcohol-related accident or someone shows up to work drunk or high.

Sure, companies pay for EAP services, and insurance may cover treatment, but these services require the addicted individual to self-report and ask for help. This by itself is a failed approach, because most people who use drugs in the workplace are either in denial or too afraid to ask for help, fearing reprisal. Shame is a huge factor, and most addicted individuals are just not going to walk in and ask for help.

Businesses have an obligation to step in and be more aggressive in addressing addictions in the workplace by intervening more proactively. Businesses need to face the problem head-on before it gets to the point where the organization is negatively affected. What it boils down to is corporate culture and doing what's right for the company, employees, customers, and stockholders.

Companies can take seven steps to deal with these issues, and EAPs would be wise to share them with their clients:

  1. Educate the workforce about addiction and treatment.

  2. Promote company-wide use of EAPs.

  3. Create a proactive addiction workplace policy.

  4. When prevention and policy fail, intervene early.

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