We don’t have to look far in news and media lately to find stories about addiction in the workplace and how destructive it can be. But the word “addiction” has become increasingly vague and general. It can mean anything from an over-developed fondness for cupcakes to a daily heroin habit. What exactly is “addiction?” What are its traits? And how does it present in the workplace?

Defining Addiction: Destructive Dependency
“Addiction” is a destructive emotional or physical dependency of any kind on a substance, act, person, place or thing. Dependency, in itself, is not the problem. We are dependent on air for life, but that doesn’t make us addicted to it. The crucial feature of addiction is that the dependency is destructive.

How Do You Know the Dependency is Destructive?
If it costs a person more than they can afford in terms of money, time, health, reputation or self-image, then it’s a good sign that it’s an addictive pattern. Sex addiction may or may not cost money, but it’s likely the addicted person will sacrifice time in the service of their addiction that needs to go elsewhere (on job or family for example). Drinking alcohol may not bankrupt a person, but if it negatively impacts their reputation or health, it’s a red flag for an addictive pattern.

How Can You Spot It at Work?
First, let’s explode the myth of the “functioning” addict. “Functioning” in relation to what? A person in active addiction may well be getting the job done. But a good question to ask is at what cost? Often it is at the cost of promotion, because a job with more responsibility would expose the pattern more quickly. This explains why so many addicts are under-achievers (at least in relation to their basic abilities and skills) and why they affect an attitude of professional indifference. Here are some useful hints:

1. Rationalization
Addictive patterns need rationalization by the addict. “I only drink because…”, “We were celebrating, that’s why I….” are two of the more common offenders. The purpose of rationalization is to square the behaviour with the addict’s values. A person in active addiction is not a bad person, they are often highly moral. In fact the shame they feel after addictive indulgence is often the cause of a new binge. This is because they can’t justify their behaviour in the light of their values. One purpose of rationalization is to sooth these values so the addict can continue in their pattern.

2. Defensiveness
Another red flag is defensiveness. Let’s be clear. Defensive behaviour is not evidence of an addictive pattern. Any person is likely to be defensive if confronted by the suggestion that they are an addict. What is telling, however, is a pattern of defensiveness that is used to justify the same kinds of behaviour e.g. lateness, financial insecurity or emotional volatility. It’s not the defensiveness that’s the symptom, it’s what it’s used to defend. Defensiveness may take the form of blaming others. Here the tone may sound very measured and reasonable. This is because a person in an addictive pattern is well used to doing this. They need to be in order to keep living in addiction.

3. All or Nothing Thinking
“All or Nothing” thinking can take a number of forms. It may present in ultimatums, for example when the addict says something like “leave me alone or fire me”. It may present in love / hate relationships where people are seen as either best friends or mortal enemies. It can also present in a work style in which projects are seen as absolute successes or abject failures. A singular lack of balance or perspective is a major trait here.

4. Emotional Hostage-Taking
It’s said that addicts don’t make friends, they take hostages. A classic sign of addictive behaviour is manipulation and a sophisticated ability to pull another person into their drama even to the extent of feeling that it’s their and not the addict’s fault that something has happened. This is why addiction is sometimes called a “family illness” and why there are 12-step support groups for the families and loved ones of addicts. In the workplace this will present as the effort to make their problems HR’s problems, usually with lots of histrionics, melodrama and general life-sapping drains on people and resources.

Addiction is a Drain, Recovery is Energy
Addiction in the workplace is as real as addiction anywhere else. Addressed well and there is every possibility the enormous energy going into servicing the addiction will be released for the individual’s personal and professional development. If it’s not addressed it’s guaranteed to continue to drain resources, poison the workplace and perpetuate the addict’s cycle of unhappiness.