Substance abuse takes a toll on productivity, work relationships
Web-only article from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3)
Through the late 1970s and early-'80s when Mark Elliot was an announcer for Ottawa radio station CFRA and then CFGO, his career was soaring.
He enjoyed a 35-per-cent audience share, spent time hanging out with rock stars and became an enormous personality. The problem was he was also a raging drug addict, whose personal life was on a downward spiral.
In the world of rock 'n' roll, drugs were easy to come by, and he helped himself regularly. Further, he indulged frequently at work. It wasn't difficult. He'd just close his office door and do a line of coke. "Cocaine doesn't leave any traces," he explains.
Or he'd step outside, roll a joint and then go on the air stoned.
Similarly, former Conservative MP for Hamilton-Wentworth Geoff Scott battled the bottle during his time in the House of Commons from 1978 to 1993.
"As a high-profile MP, everyone is trying to show you a good time," he recalls. "There was alcohol at all the social functions."
Long liquid lunches with colleagues at the National Press Club were also a regular occurrence.
Mr. Elliot and Mr. Scott have company. Substance abuse is still a concern in the workplace today. According to the Canadian Addiction Survey published in 2004 by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 79 per cent of Canadian adults consumed alcohol in the survey year, and of these 22.6 per cent exceeded the low-risk drinking guidelines. The number of marijuana users had doubled since 1994 to 14 per cent. Of those, 2.5 per cent used daily.
Substance abuse affects people in a wide range of professions—from truck driving to medicine, according to Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health and training at Shepell.fgi, a company that provides health and wellness programs for employers across Canada.
For a while, Mr. Elliot was able to function just fine. In fact, fuelled by the drugs, he was a workhorse who produced far more than other employees.
"I was a house on fire. I was writing, doing reviews and on the radio. If I needed energy, I just took speed," he says.
But sooner or later performance at work suffers. Substance abuse can affect everything from an employee's productivity and ability to do the job, to relationships with colleagues and attendance, says Mr. Smith.
Mr. Scott maintains he was never drunk on the job; however, there was often a residual buzz. And alcohol affected his job in a subtle way. He didn't especially get along with the prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, and the alcohol made Mr. Scott feisty.
As a result, he was often sent on official business outside the country.
Toward the end of Mr. Elliot's five-year using stint, the drugs started controlling him.
"At some point you can't get enough of the drugs. It's all you think about."
He was deteriorating physically, too. He had black sores that didn't heal and five different fungus infections.
Co-workers and bosses started to catch on to Mr. Elliot's and Mr. Scott's extra-curricular activities. In 1989, the party whip called Mr. Scott in New York and raised the issue while he was at the United Nations—ironically addressing how the western world was coping with the influx of illegal drugs. "I was resentful, but he actually planted the spark to get sober," says Mr. Scott.
Mr. Elliot's co-workers and bosses could see he wasn't eating— at six-foot-four, he weighed a mere 140 pounds. But at first they turned a blind eye. "I was a star performer," Mr. Elliot explains. And why mess with success?
Indeed, some managers are reluctant to confront an addict who is a top performer, or simply don't know how to handle the situation.
A manager must document the changes in the employee's behaviour and performance and address these issues with the employee. Then a discussion can be initiated about finding help: either through an employee-assistance program, a provincial help line or a doctor.
In 1993, at the end of his term, Mr. Scott decided not to run for re-election. Instead he went into the Halton Recovery House in Milton, Ont., for three months.
"They hammered through my thick skull the dangers of ingesting alcohol and the risk of ending up in the marble orchard."
He's been sober ever since— 13 years and counting.
In 1987 a new general manager arrived at Mr. Elliot's radio station and did the best thing for him—she fired him. Mr. Elliot went into rehab at Brentwood Treatment Centre in Windsor and got clean.
Though in these instances residential rehabilitation was necessary, it isn't always. "Many addicts can get treatment and continue to work at the same time, while maintaining sobriety," says Mr. Smith.
But if an employee leaves a job, re-entering the workplace can be a challenge. Mr. Scott was fortunate because he didn't wish to return to politics. He started hosting a current events radio show on CHML in Hamilton.
However, Mr. Elliot recalls when he came out, "everyone wanted to see me, but no one wanted to hire me."
This isn't surprising. According to The Cost of Substance Abuse in Canada 2002 study by the CCSA, productivity losses for employers (including the cost of disability payments, re-hiring and re- training employees) amounted to $24.3 billion in 2002.
Mr. Elliot did work his way back into radio. With executive producer Warren Cosford, Mr. Elliot started a talk show about addiction called People Helping People on Windsor's CKLW. It bounced around across the CHUM network and then to Toronto's 1010 CFRB at the end of 2001.
Now he counsels people about addiction both on-air and in private practice.
Controversial as ever, Mr. Elliot has become an addict's advocate. "Recovering addicts are treated as second-class citizens," he shoots out.
"When employers tell me that they don't want to hire an addict, I say, 'You don't have to. They already work for you.' Who would you rather have working your forklift, someone who is clean and in recovery or someone who is using and hiding it?"
About the author
Deena is a Toronto-based freelance writer who writes articles and corporate communications. Her website is www.waisberg.ca
NotesOriginally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, July 7th, 2007, p. D12. Reproduced with permission