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High functioning doesn’t equal high performing: The myth of the high functioning executive

Person wearing a suit and tie, fastening the jacket closed.

As addiction continues to permeate the headlines, we see more stories of high performing professionals struggling with substance use disorders. In fact, addiction impacts people from all walks of life – including those with stellar resumes. Even the most driven and successful people are vulnerable to the disease of addiction.

There is often a misperception that as an individual continues to successfully function in an intensive job that he or she cannot be an addict, or at least the problem is not that bad. In fact, most high functioning addicts are also capable of being master controllers for a long time – abusing his or her drug of choice, hiding the evidence, and working diligently to minimize consequences. The very same skills that helped them climb the corporate ladder in a high-pressure, results-driven work environment — critical thinking, problem-solving, and persuasion—help them hide their substance use. From the outside, they may appear to have perfect lives – sporting the trappings of success – but inside they are crumbling. Life is in a state of disarray and their health and safety is constantly at risk. Here’s what you need to know:

More than meets the eye

Even when an executive is under the influence or regularly hung-over at work, colleagues and friends may see tasks being completed, and perhaps even well-done. However, what they don’t see are the hours spent behind the scenes redoing those tasks because they were first done under the influence. Late-night emails are seen as dedication, when in reality they may be written at that time because that’s when the person emerged from a bender. The same task that takes a sober person an hour may take the addict two, three, or more. Outside of day-to-day tasks, there is also the perpetual risk of an incident where the addict is a danger to himself and others, bringing with it a public relations and perhaps legal liability for the company.

The enabling workplace

The office can enable an executive’s substance use disorder just as family and friends can. When a workplace victory completed while under the influence is celebrated, it encourages them that they can continue these habits and still be successful, further driving them to continue with their lifestyle. While we’d like to think all forms of enabling in the workplace are unwitting, there are many in management positions willing to look the other way if an executive is succeeding and profitable while using. Colleagues, assistants, and other peers can also participate in unknowingly enabling an addiction by picking up tasks the executive has not finished because they were under the influence or rescheduling a meeting to accommodate a hangover. Clear and distinct warning signs of addiction should be made available across the office, and management needs to carve a direct and confidential path to disclose suspected substance abuse disorder.

Other areas of their life are in shambles

High functioning addicts typically manage to safeguard their careers from the consequences of their addiction, at least for a period. However, their career is likely the only part of their life that has not been affected … yet. Their relationships, and physical health, home and social lives have all been damaged by their addiction, but the office remains the place they can turn to reassure themselves they are still in control. The best approach to helping someone in this situation is for family and friends to recognize the signs of addiction, so they know it’s time to act. Some common signs are:

  • Isolation
  • Change in regular patterns
  • Disappearing at unexpected times
  • Changes in physical appearance, such as weight loss or gain
  • Red eyes
  • Mood swings
  • Lateness
  • Strained relationships
  • Unsteady gait
  • Increased irritation

Because of their history of competence and success, the high functioning addict is often overlooked, suffering in silence because of their ability to maintain the illusion of control. By being vigilant, we can identify them, help them to understand that they face the same fate as any other addict if they don’t get help, and work to guide them into treatment.

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