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  • Writer's pictureKendra Beavis

Addiction Recognition/Treatment in Executives

Challenge of detecting addition in  management and Senior Executives

© by Heiko Ganzer, LCSW (not to be reprinted in any form without permission)

The challenge of detecting and supervising the problem gambler, alcoholic, drug dependent or mentally ill senior executive is a tough reality for all organizations, regardless of size or type of business. No one is immune. Many firms have experienced significant success in dealing with and managing addicted blue-collar workers, supervisors, and middle managers, but impaired senior executives have remained unaffected by their best efforts.

Why? The most common reasons include (1) the frequent lack of close, day-to-day supervision of senior executives by their superiors, (2) the difficulty in connecting a developing health problem with the impairment of the executive’s day-to-day performance, particularly in the early phases of the illness, (3) the desire by loyal subordinates to cover up for a senior executive’s impairment, and (4) the lack of senior colleagues who are adequately informed of the impaired executives problems and who have sufficient status, desire, and knowledge to confront the executive and follow through. (Speller, 1989, p. xiv-xv) There is a theory in many organizations that addicted persons do not reach high positions – specifically those in management. The theory is that they weed themselves out by their inferior job performance.

This theory is a myth as it  ignores the facts that addiction can often be extremely slow in developing and those entrenched executives often have devoted staffs that keep covering up for them. In addition problem gambling is a hidden addiction.

There is another school of thought that believes that addiction is even higher among executives than among rank and file employees. The pressure of an executive’s job is advanced as the reason for this disparity. The frequent lack of close, day-to-day supervision of senior executives by their superiors represents a very special problem regarding detection, as most executives have no fixed or monitored schedule, and there is no production record the way a factory worker is generally monitored. (Hood, 1983, p. 129).

The difficulty in connecting a developing mental health problem with the impairment of day-to-day performance, particularly in the early phases of the illness is part of the corporate denial. Without attention executives usually get worse, not better. A proactive rather than a reactive strategy simply make more sense. The vast majority of senior-level executives in our public and private institutions are white married; a well educated male group that traditionally becomes psychologically impaired less frequently than the population as a whole. The corporate suite is no place for amateurs and many executives’ view asking for help as a sign of weakness because of the fear of the sharks (in the workplace) that are always circling. The troubled individual may stop functioning – professionally and personally although many can hide their addiction. They can lose their sense of humor, sense of reality, and become suspicious and distrustful. Indecisive and confused thinking may surface while judgment can deteriorate. The troubled executive can become unpredictable, undependable, and inappropriately aggressive. (Speller, 1989 p. 2-5) They can develop personality and behavioral changes including unexplained absences or disappearances during working hours. (Tersine, 1982 p.1). Further complicating the detection process are those many seriously impaired senior executives as well as their impaired subordinates who still have periods when their behavior and performance appear quite normal, appropriate, and acceptable. (Speller, 1989 p. 5-7) It is also interesting that some companies draw a sharp distinction between treatment of alcohol-based, drug-based, or gambling problems. Theoretically they are varieties of the same problem. Legal issues surface as a major factor for this attitude. Approximately one in every 20 employees in the workforce has a gambling problem. Unfortunately, many organizations are guilty of minimizing the seriousness of gambling, focusing primarily on substance abuse. The attitude of management toward the problem of addiction can affect the rate of reported cases and can influence the policies, procedures and staff used to deal with troubled employees. Larger companies are staffed to deal with such problems, and report them more freely. Smaller firms do not readily tolerate addiction problems and do not report them. Their solution is to fire the problem employee. (Madonia, 1981, p.1-2) The addicted top executive  is generally considered to be an extremely difficult subject for intervention and recovery in the corporate setting. Addiction and denial systems are inseparable. (Shirley, 1985, p.2)  The employee assistance programs (EAP) are generally considered to be ineffective in recovering top management people. (Shirley, 1985, p.3-4) In the opinion of this writer, based on personal experience in over 14 years as an executive and as an involved recovery participant, I believe that recovery occurs with greater success through intervention and direction involving someone (another executive) who has successfully recovered. These recovering executives are difficult to find.

©Heiko Ganzer, LCSW (not for reprint without permission)

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