Stigma in the Workplace: Part 1

stigma Stigma in the Workplace: Part 1 1
Overcoming the stigma of addiction in the workplace can be an uphill battle.

“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distraction.
– Michelle Obama”

Demographically substance abusers will fall under the category of mental illness. The National Study on Drug Use and Health reported in 2014, “SAMHSA defines mental illness based on diagnostic criteria in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).3 Any mental illness (AMI) among adults aged 18 or older is the presence of any mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in the past year that met DSM-IV criteria. Among adults with a disorder, those adults whose disorder caused substantial functional impairment (i.e., a disorder that substantially interfered with or limited one or more major life activities) are defined as having serious mental illness (SMI) and have the most urgent need for treatment.”


A study entitled “Economic Costs to Society of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and Mental Illness: 1980″ released on the National Crime Justice Service reports: “The economic costs of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and mental illness in 1980 were an estimated $190.7 billion. Alcohol abuse cost $89.5 billion; drug abuse, $46.9 billion; and mental illness, $54.2 billion. These values have changed from the 1977 values due to changes in inflation, significant methodological improvements, and population growth. Reduced productivity due to alcohol and drug abuse was estimated to cost $50.6 billion and $25.7 billion respectively. Other costs estimated involve lost employment, treatment, motor vehicle crashes, crime, and social welfare programs.”

There are three parts to this conversation about the stigma of addiction in the workplace. Exiting the workplace, navigating the workplace and reentering it. The stigma against addicts is not without some merit. We have caused so much damage to ourselves that has spilled into the workplace. It takes education, understanding, courage, and compassion to address the issues in a comprehensive fashion. This will take all parties involved.


Very few, if any would argue that an employee that no calls no shows, comes in late, or cannot perform to the standards of the position should stay employed without correction. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a great start. It protects employees or potential employees from being discriminated against for substance abuse issues. As long as an employee of a company of 15 or more discloses and seeks help for their problem their job is protected. Treatment is a better alternative than termination.


When it comes to navigating the workplace, it’s a different story. The distinction between the suffering drug addict and alcoholic and the one in recovery is imperative. One of the aspects that makes stigma stick is the generalization of it. Almost everyone has been directly or indirectly impacted by family member’s, friends, lovers, or associates addiction. It’s common to think that because on an addict exhibited this behavior that all do. It may even be somewhat accurate. Here is where the distinction comes into play. Many addicts and alcoholics have entered into a new way of life after treatment. They have changed. Many go on to accomplish many amazing things. Some recovering addicts will open a business, write books, become celebrities, philanthropists, even millionaires. Some become great parents, employees, friends, spouses, neighbors and community members. The common thread is the change in character. These stories are not spread enough. Too often its mistaken for boasting. The best way to combat negative experiences is with positive ones. The wounds of those who generalize and project their experiences must be healed with the ointment of the example of changed lives. The redemptive value of the stories of long-term recovery members and their personal and professional successes is immeasurable. This will take bravery on our part. It is not breaking traditions to reveal your anonymity and share our story. We simply don’t connect it to any specific fellowship.

GateHouse Treatment Editorial Staff
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