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A Double Life

Addicts Can Be High-Functioning: What Lawyers Need to Know

By Eric Webber

They say “work hard, play hard.” Unfortunately, this adage may normalize workplace behavior that can be very dangerous. In fact, a 2015 study found that workaholics are more likely to drink in excess than their peers. At many major firms, lawyers routinely work up to 60-hour weeks, so it’s no surprise they are especially susceptible to workaholism and addiction.

Until recently, the potential consequences of a workaholic culture — addiction, anxiety and depression — were rarely spoken of. However, the opioid epidemic has elevated the dialogue about addiction. The idea that addicts are all vagrants has given way to a broader awareness that addiction affects people from every walk of life. Moreover, it is a myth that an individual seemingly functioning well at work could not be an addict. Our experiences paint a picture of an individual who continues to maintain the facade of functionality at work despite the extent of their alcohol or drug use.

“High-Functioning” Isn’t High-Performing

Maintaining a life of active addiction while working in a high-pressure field, such as law, frequently translates to leading a double life. The person may exhibit a seemingly healthy persona, including going to the gym, eating regularly and looking good. However, people who look like they’re high-functioning may not actually be high-functioning. They may be spending extensive amounts of time double-checking their work following a hangover, having to stay up long hours into the night sending out emails and documents, or going to great lengths to conceal their unhealthy behaviors. They may be using their intelligence and extensive skills to minimize and hide the consequences of addiction and deny their problem both to themselves and others.

Related: “Law Firm’s Guide to a Low-Risk Holiday Party”

The Disease Will Thrive in a Workplace That Enables It

When we think of someone as high-functioning, it’s usually assumed the person has been managing their responsibilities and overall life, including their addiction, for years. They may keep up appearances for a long time, but disease progression varies from person to person. They may (and most likely will) continue their unhealthy behavior if their workplace enables them. If colleagues cover for them when they’re late, help them when they’ve forgotten something important, and look the other way at “out of character” behavior, the colleagues are contributing to the problem.

This could be assistants, mentees, subordinates, or even supervisors who are invested in the individual’s continued high-performance. Not unlike an enabling family, they may minimize or deny the extent of the problem to perpetuate the perceived high-functioning of the struggling person.

If you notice someone showing up chronically late for work, missing commitments or having an unexplained decline in work quality, it is important to bring that to the attention of the appropriate parties in the firm, which may mean partners, your supervisor or a human resources manager. Silence can put both the lawyer and the firm at risk.

Signs of alcohol abuse may include increased consumption at social functions, mood irregularities, calling in sick on a regular basis (especially on particular days or around notable drinking holidays) or having alcohol on their breath.

Other drugs, such as prescription painkillers or stimulant narcotics, may have similar symptoms such as erratic mood swings, frequent sick days, falling asleep at work, coming in late and reduced work performance overall.

A Word to Management: Why, When and How to Act

Most firms genuinely care about their lawyers’ overall health and support wellness programs. However, even when that’s not the case, it’s important for management to remember a lawyer suffering from addiction will inevitability increase costs or even put revenue at risk — whether it’s in the form of decreased productivity, performance mistakes that put the firm at risk for liability, or causing possible PR nightmares.

Getting through to a lawyer suffering from addiction can be a challenge in these scenarios. In the face of strong denial, a simple meeting might not suffice and an intervention may be necessary. In either event, documenting repeated behavior and complaints is critical. Corroborate behavior from various sources, so there is little room for argument. Having information from subordinates, superiors, colleagues and clients (if a complaint has been made), and family and friends will all collectively help confront problem behaviors and denial.

Furthermore, while the firm’s goal isn’t necessarily to help someone enter treatment and seek recovery, it will have a stake in the lawyer achieving better health through recovery. The afflicted person typically can return with improved health and the ability to perform at a higher level.

Restoring Balance With Recovery

Recovery is about achieving holistic wellness, which includes a work-life balance. The earlier-cited study shows workaholism and addiction often go hand in hand, which requires a strategy for re-entering a high-stress work environment. Risk of relapse is higher when prior behaviors return that don’t prioritize self-care. So it is important to cultivate habits such as working hours within reasonable limits, sleeping sufficiently, exercising and generally having a more balanced approach to life.

Lawyers often fear for their reputation, making them less likely to seek treatment. By raising awareness and understanding of addiction as being a treatable disease, we can create healthier workplaces.

Eric Webber is Clinical Director of the Men’s Relapse Program and the Men’s Phase II Program at Caron Treatment Centers (@carontreatment), a not-for-profit addiction treatment provider.

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Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management, Lawyer Health
Originally published December 14, 2017
Last updated September 24, 2020
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