With Martin G. Moore

Episode #97

Addiction in the Workplace: Managing the fallout

Many people suffer from addictions, and they don’t check them in at the door when they turn up to work each day – their choice is to either function through their dysfunction, or lose their job.

How should we, as leaders, handle incidences of addiction in our people? What are the boundaries we should maintain, and how much slack should we cut people who suffer from these issues?

We look at why no team is immune to the effects of addiction, the link between substance abuse and impairment, and the role of social culture in the workplace.

If this brings up anything for you, please reach out to one of the many organisations who can help such as Lifeline.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #97 Addiction in the Workplace: Managing the fallout

Hey there, and welcome to Episode #97 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Addiction in the Workplace: Managing the fallout. Today, we take a look at a taboo topic that people don’t like to talk about much, substance abuse and addiction. People who suffer from addictions don’t check them in at the door when they turn up to work each day. Their choice is to either function through their dysfunction or lose their job. One of our favourite listeners and longtime fan of No Bullsh!t Leadership posed the question in this way. Sometimes a culture develops in companies where you typically have a lot of men making a lot of money. Recreational drug use, particularly cocaine. I’ve been in situations where someone I’ve had to rely on dropped the ball on something important, and I’m sure their drug habit played a significant role. I see it as a major minefield for a leader to navigate. Where you suspect a drug problem, but can’t necessarily make accusations, especially if these sorts of things are happening outside of work. Well today we’ll explore exactly how to handle these situations as a leader. We’ll start by getting really clear on a very important question. Who do you think really works for you? We’ll then talk about the link between substance abuse and impairment. I’ll briefly touch on social culture in the workplace, and I’ll finish up with some tips for leaders on handling these situations. So let’s get into it.

Here’s a fact. In your team, you have a cross section of the population, that lives in your general area. That’s it. The people that work for you are no different than that particular slice of humanity. So don’t expect it to be any different. Let’s just take a minute to work out what that means. I’ve got some statistics here for a few of the issues that you’re likely to encounter. Now, the first thing I’m going to talk about is the national survey on drug use and health, which was listed in the US in 2018. What it found was that over 5% of the population aged 12 and over have an alcohol abuse problem. And 3% of people over the age of 12 had at least one drug use disorder. Now you can say, it’s not like that where I live, but let’s face it, this is a pretty good proxy for any developed country.

Here’s a pretty interesting statistic from the Australian Government Agency, Health Direct. 20% of Australians suffer from a mental health issue in any given year and half of all Australians will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Let’s pull out a few more random ones. Research conducted by the U S Library of Medicine shows that the prevalence of kleptomania in the adult population is around 0.6%. And I hate to say this ladies, but this report found that the incidence of females to males is about 3 to 1. Here’s something really disturbing. According to Dr. Michael Seto a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Royal Ottawa HealthCare Group, found that the percentage of paedophiles in our society could be as high as 2%. Now let’s just translate this. In a small team of only 100 people, it is statistically likely that you have 5 alcoholics, 3 drug addicts, and 20 people with mental health issues.

If you’re unlucky, one of the women working for you will steal your shit the first opportunity she gets, because she’s a kleptomaniac, and disturbingly, it’s more likely than not that one of the guys who works for you is sexually attracted to children younger than 14. This is frightening to think about, but these are the numbers.

Now we all like to think that’s not our team, but we’d be wrong. It’s everyone’s team. This can create some real complexity for leaders. So you’ve got to recognise that leadership can’t overstep the mark. For most of you, the vast majority of our listeners and the vast majority of leaders, you’re not qualified clinical psychologists or psychiatrists, so you’ve got to stay within your lane. You can’t be a pop psychologist when you’re leading people. But on the other hand, you have legal obligations. So there is mandatory reporting to police for certain offences whether they’re behaviours, whether you find something on someone’s computer, you have mandatory reporting requirements. But as leaders you can really only deal with this in your work context, work performance, behaviour, attendance, and delivery of outcomes. Now there’s a balance and a way of approaching this that allows you to maintain appropriate leader boundaries while still showing concern and caring for the individuals and being able to offer them help. At the same time, you’ve got to keep the rest of the team safe from any rogue elements.

One of the biggest problems with substance abuse, even if it happens outside of the workplace, is that it can cause impairment in the individual, mental and physical. Now in some industries like mining, oil and gas, transportation, heavy manufacturing, impairment at work can lead to serious injury or death for the individual who is impaired or for their workmates. Companies in these fields generally have policies about alcohol and drug use. So for example, you can’t go onto a mining lease, that is inside the gates, that surround the mine site, unless you can show that you have a 0.00 concentration of alcohol in your blood, and there’s pretty serious consequences for doing otherwise. Most organisations who have these policies also have a regime of random testing to make sure that they keep people on track. The object of the exercise here, is not to be a kill joy and to stop your people from having fun when they’re not at work.

The object of the exercise is to make sure that when you do turn up to work you’re fit for work, that you’re unimpaired by any sort of substance, and that you’re ready to go to the best of your ability. Now because of this link between substance abuse and impairment, there are also other factors that cause impairment like fatigue. So these companies also generally have strict fatigue guidelines to prescribe the hours that you can work in a certain given pattern over a certain period of time. I’ve seen lots of cases over the years of people who just couldn’t get over their substance abuse problem.

There was one guy who worked in a group that I ran in a mining company and he was on a remote location site. But his office, even though he didn’t operate heavy machinery, was inside the gates of the mining lease. Now, unfortunately, this guy was a confirmed alcoholic. It was a relatively small community and people used to see him at the pub each night, drinking himself into a stupor. He couldn’t help himself. One day, the inevitable happened. He got caught in a random alcohol and drug test and was issued with a final warning. Now at this particular mine site, and most of them have this, there’s an alcohol breath testing machine at the gate. So before you walk onto the side, you can actually check to make sure that you have no alcohol in your system. After this final warning, this individual used to get to work in the morning. He’d blow into that machine to see if he was under 0.00 and more often than not, he’d have to turn around and go back to his car. We’re talking Central Queensland here. This is pretty hot, right?!

So he’d go back into his car, he’d lean his seat back, and he’d sleep for an hour. And then he’d go back and try again. Some days he didn’t get into work until before midday, because he had to wait until the alcohol was out of his system. But sure enough, 5:00, 5:30 that afternoon, he’d be back in the pub. Eventually it became an issue of attendance. He simply wasn’t able to spend the amount of time he needed to at work because he was never sober enough. This is really sad, but this guy resisted every opportunity he had to get the help that we were offering him. There was also a gentleman who we had to CS Energy because he tested multiple times with marijuana in his system at work. Now it’s very difficult to get sacked at CS Energy for this because the policy is very forgiving and you get plenty of warnings. But even despite all of this and all of the support and all of the assistance, he just eventually tripped up one too many times. And this guy was a good human. He just couldn’t get out of his own way. The bottom line is you don’t want anyone to be impaired when they come to work, but you don’t really have that much control. There are lots of functioning alcoholics and functioning drug addicts out there at the highest levels of organisations. I mean, I was amazed to find that the VIP lounges, of my preferred airline in Australia, have sharps containers in the bathrooms. And you’d have to think that they’re for more than just diabetic syringes.

Let’s look at social culture in the workplace. Here’s a story from my past, the late 1980s, I was a young consultant working on a job for a major organisation in Sydney. At the end of the first week, my boss, who was a middle manager in the organisation, came to me and said, “Hey, look, it’s Friday. A few of us like to go out for lunch on a Friday. You’re most welcome to join us”. So I eagerly accepted. What we did was that we walked a block away to a pub called the Edinburgh Castle. And in the next two hours, each of us proceeded to drink five pints of beer, and I think in terms of food, we might have eaten half a spring roll each, but then, we went back to the office. Productivity that afternoon was nonexistent. Between 11:30 and 1:30 we were on the juice, seriously.

Nothing happened when we got back because if it had’ve, we would have just had to fix it on Monday. Now that taught me an important lesson. If I’m going to have a drink at work, I don’t go back to work. That was it. Some industries and some companies are particularly well known for having a hard partying culture. I’m not going to mention any names, you know who you are. But this concept of work hard, play hard, it sounds like it’s a really good thing. It has so much downside it’s not funny. The upside first though. You can create really strong bonds between people when they have social activities together, any shared experience will give you that sort of bonding. But as a leader, is this how you want to be known? So your credibility can plummet really, really easily. You can’t be out there one night doing lines of cocaine and shots of tequila with your workmates, the people in your team, and then try and talk to them about something serious the next day, or give them any direct feedback. You can see on their face they’re looking at you going, “Don’t tell me what to do, mate. I saw what you did when you were wasted last Friday night.”

When you’re a leader, it’s not just what you do in work hours that counts. It’s who you are and the way you behave all the time. Leaders getting too involved in social events with their staff is always a little sketchy. I’ve seen lots of very senior executives wake up on a Monday morning to find their careers in tatters from their overzealousness on the preceding Friday night. And in the worst cases, some of this behaviour is actually criminal. And what example does this set for your people? How shiny are the corporate values on the foil wall, when your people look at them on the Monday morning? I’m sure you’ve all been to Christmas parties that have generated a huge amount of gossip after the fact, because of the way one or more senior people have acted.

So I always had a rule with Christmas parties, but when I said always, after I got to being a mid range leader and above, I’d go early, I’d have a couple of drinks, I would normally drive so there wasn’t too much temptation to get involved in it, and I mix and I’d socialise and I’d thank people for their efforts, but I would go home early. And the most senior people that were left there, I’d always say “Look, it’s fine for everyone to blow off some steam, but keep it sensible. Don’t do anything that HR can’t fix on Monday”.

So how do we handle all of this as leaders? Well, for a start, we need to be aware that the problems exist and we need to not make concessions for them. You had a hard night, okay? But you don’t get to come here and distract your colleagues while you work off your hangover. But at the same time, if you can help someone deal with the problem, you probably should. There’ve been times when I’ve needed to pull someone up for their performance. And it’s very clearly because of what they’re doing outside of work. But you’ve got to play with a straight bat. So I’d sit them down and give them the normal feedback I would, right, “Here’s the performance problem we have to deal with. Here’s what I’m observing. Here’s what I can see you doing, but I need you to do this instead”. It doesn’t mean that I can’t delve more deeply at the end of the conversation.

And quite often I used to. So I’d say for example, “It looks like you’re struggling with something. Is everything okay outside of work? Is there anything you’d like to talk about? If you need help, here are some people you can contact”. So I would open the door, without crossing the line, into being a pop psychologist. And sometimes you’ll have really good people who work for you, who you know are really good performers, who are just going through a life event that is genuinely destabilising. So we all struggle with these occasionally and you should cut people some slack for that. So for example, going through a divorce or the death of a parent, a major health issues inside the family, or the classic is a new baby. I remember going into one of my people’s offices one day and he just looked absolutely shattered. And I said, “Mate, are you okay?

Are you getting any sleep?” And he said, “Oh yeah”. He said, “I’m sleeping like a baby. I wake up every half hour screaming.” As a leader, you want to keep appropriate boundaries. So the motto is friendly, but not friends. And if you haven’t got this really, really solidified yet, go back and have a listen to episode 14 of No Bullsh!t Leadership. It’s actually called friendly, not friends. If you want to be a leader, you can’t get into the party spirit too regularly with your troops. The occasional drink, dinner or celebration is fine. That makes you human, but don’t over commit to it. Keep it under control. It’s not a good look. It flows over to the workplace so that you lose a little credibility. Show some personal discipline and some self management. Ultimately what people do on their own time is their own business, but people make their choices and they have to accept the consequences of those choices.

And if their choices outside of the work context affect their performance and behaviour in the workplace, you need to bring them into line as the leader. You don’t need to talk about their drug addiction or their alcohol addiction, but you need to make sure that the standards for their behaviour and performance is the same as for everyone else. They don’t get a holiday just because they choose to indulge their habits in a way that prevents them from meeting the standard you set for everyone else.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 97. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast, as this enables us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, where I’m going to get Em to join me for another Q&A.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership