- In high-pressure careers, professionals can abuse alcohol to self-medicate or as a coping strategy.
- Competitive environments often have a culture that can encourage problem drinking.
- Admitting that you need help can be extra difficult from the C-suite.
Addiction among C-suite executives is a complex and sensitive issue that can have significant personal, professional, and organizational implications. CEOs, CFOs, and other executives in leadership positions are under immense pressure to perform at high levels and make critical decisions that can impact the success of their organizations and the lives of their employees. This pressure, combined with long working hours, stress, and high expectations, can increase the risk of abusing alcohol/drugs in ways that lead to addiction.
Conservative estimates suggest that somewhere between 9% and 13% of C-level executives have problems with alcohol and/or other drug abuse.
Eight key points to consider when thinking about addiction among C-suite executives:
- Risk Factors: The demanding nature of C-suite roles can expose executives to risk factors such as high stress, unrelenting pressures, isolation, and easy access to resources that can hide and enable substance abuse or other addictive behaviors.
- Substance Use: Executives might turn to mood-altering substances such as alcohol, sedatives, opioids, and stimulants as a way to cope with the extraordinary demands and pressures of their roles. Because these substances can provide instantaneous albeit temporary relief from stress or anxiety, they can encourage escalating and habitual use and over time to the development of a full-blown addiction.
- Compulsive Behaviors: Beyond substance use, other types of compulsive behaviors such as gambling, workaholism, and various internet-based activities may be a concern. Work can provide a socially acceptable way to distract oneself from troubling personal issues and fulfill a compulsive need to maintain control and feel productive.
- Stigma and Denial: The stigma associated with addiction can be particularly strong among high-ranking individuals, causing them to deny or hide their struggles. Fear of damaging their reputation or career prospects may prevent them from seeking help.
- Organizational Culture: If addiction issues are left unaddressed, they can potentially affect the larger culture of an organization. Employees may become disillusioned or demotivated if they perceive that leaders are struggling with addiction that is not being addressed.
- The Challenge of Finding Proper Help: Executives seeking help for addiction may face challenges in finding appropriate treatment due to their high-profile roles. Privacy concerns and the need for specialized treatment options can complicate the process.
- Prevention and Intervention: Companies can play a role in preventing addiction by fostering a healthy work environment, promoting work-life balance, and providing resources for stress management.
- Setting Positive Examples: Executives who openly address their addiction and seek help can set an example for others and help reduce the stigma associated with addiction. Demonstrating vulnerability and seeking assistance can be a sign of strong leadership.
Executives and professionals face unique challenges
People in positions of power and authority typically have resources that can help conceal an addiction. Senior-level executives often don't have to explain themselves, at least not right away, when addictions interfere with professional responsibilities. They also have personal assistants and other resources to cover for them, which may allow their addiction to continue unchecked for an extended period.
Executives often fear the cost of acknowledging a substance use disorder. They know how much their employees, co-workers, colleagues, and families depend on them. Just admitting the problem, even to yourself, can be devastating considering how much of their self-image and self-worth is tied to professional accomplishment and success.
Research also suggests that people in a position of power are less likely to conform to restraints on their behaviors, and feel more optimistic about engaging in risky behaviors. Executives are more likely to rely on the power and status they’ve earned and evade accountability for questionable behavior—at least until their drinking gets way out of hand and it becomes necessary to deal with the consequences.
High-pressure careers can increase addiction vulnerability
The immense pressure experienced by high-level executives can fuel alcohol abuse. After all, problem drinking is a coping strategy to deal with immense pressure. It is not going to be a sustainable or healthy response, but it is a coping strategy.
Senior executives often feel unrelenting pressure from colleagues, clients, families, board members, and—especially—from themselves to maintain untenable levels of performance. Alongside the intense pressure, many executives don't take the time or opportunity to develop healthy coping strategies. In the absence of internal resources, it is often too easy to find a quick reprieve through excessive alcohol consumption.
The characteristics that lead to career success don't necessarily include the kind of emotional intelligence that can support a healthy relationship with alcohol. Building emotional intelligence can support long-term sobriety and provide important tools for leaders in the workplace. Resilient leaders are able to cope with strong feelings constructively without turning to self-destructive behaviors.
The culture in many highly competitive work environments encourages drinking
Corporate environments often have a culture that facilitates problem drinking. High-powered executives may be expected to entertain clients or stakeholders over business lunches, elaborate dinners, or outings that include unlimited alcohol as a means of building rapport and advancing company goals.
In certain industries such as advertising, entertainment, and hospitality, there is a perception among some executives that they’re expected to “let loose” at social events and imbibe alcohol freely, to strengthen relationships with staff and stakeholders. While the WeWork culture under its co-founder and former CEO (as documented in The Wall Street Journal) had a particularly extreme attitude towards alcohol and drugs (saying no to free tequila shots and cocaine with your bosses and colleagues can be tough), many companies have events that encourage problem substance use.
In some cases, the consumption of high-end alcoholic beverages can be seen as a status symbol or a display of success. Executives may indulge in expensive wines, whiskies, or other luxury drinks to demonstrate their achievements or to align with the expectations of their peers.
Unfortunately, a work culture that promotes drinking also stimulates the neural pathways that encourage a person to turn to alcohol as a way to relax or manage stress levels even outside of corporate events.
Substance abuse, mental health, and family connections
Alcohol both encourages and exacerbates mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as it changes brain chemistry, disrupts neurotransmitters, and interferes with cognitive processing and mood regulation. While problem drinking can provide short-term emotional relief, it tends to aggravate any underlying emotional health challenges. Unfortunately, some people can try to cope by ramping up their substance abuse and get into a worsening spiral of increased drinking and deteriorating mental health.
For many people, the biggest threat from addiction is the disruption to family life and the possibility that substance abuse will destroy a marriage. Quite simply, an addict is not able to be a fully present and emotionally available parent, regardless of how hard he works or what professional successes she experiences.
Six steps that organizations can take to promote healthier relationships with alcohol
Addiction among C-suite executives is a complex issue that requires careful consideration and handling. Ideally, companies should focus on creating an environment that encourages work-life balance, stress management, and open communication, and offer resources for those struggling with substance abuse and related mental health issues to seek help without fear of repercussions.
Corporations can take practical steps to change their culture around substance abuse.
- Create a culture of awareness about addiction and mental health issues, that encourages people struggling with addiction to get help.
- Provide education—including workshops and speaking from the top to raise awareness about addiction, its signs, and the resources available for treatment.
- Make it safe for employees at all levels to seek help for addiction, without fear of repercussions.
- Establish standards of privacy and confidentiality. Create a safe environment for executives to seek help, where their privacy is respected.
- Partner with health care providers, addiction psychologists, or addiction treatment centers to offer specialized treatment programs tailored to the needs of executives. These programs can include inpatient or outpatient care, counseling, therapy, and ongoing support.
- Create a work culture that promotes work-life balance and time for self-care.
No matter how competent and successful a person might be, recovering from addiction is a daunting task. Even for executives who are accustomed to solving problems, willpower is not enough. That doesn't mean that willpower is not important, but rather that overcoming addiction requires much more than willpower alone.
© 2023 Dr. Arnold Washton. All rights reserved.
Bush, D. M., Ph.D.,, F. A., & Lipari, R. N., Ph.D (2015, April 16). SUBSTANCE USE AND SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER BY INDUSTRY. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_1959/ShortReport-1959.html
Washton, A. M., Ph.D. (2021, December 26). What Discourages Addicted Executives From Seeking Help? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/harm-reduction-or-abstinence/202112/what-discourages-addicted-executives-seeking-help