“I’m calling for a cultural change in how we think about addiction. For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”
It's Accelerate Michigan week and we’re thrilled to be semi-finalists again at an event that is core to our hearts and has been pivotal in our path. What a difference a year has made growing our silicon-valley founded, venture-backed startup in Metro Detroit, where we have an intellectual community and the tightest of ties. Here’s why we’re proud to be here:
The costs of prescription opioid abuse to employers are as great as $18 billion per year.
Knowledge is power. It’s a trite but true slogan, and especially applicable to the prescription painkiller epidemic; millions of Americans have inadvertently walked into opioid dependencies and addictions via legal prescriptions because they were unaware of the risks or ill-prepared to handle them.
What is "internet addiction"? A bit of a misnomer, to start. Back when it was first noticed that people were having issues with internet usage resembling offline behavioral addictions, expert opinion branched into two: either the internet itself was addictive in nature, or it was serving as a facilitator for actual addictive behaviors (many of which can also be found offline, like gambling or shopping). To date, the latter explanation has garnered the most research support.1
I worked for four years in adolescent mental health, taking part in the journeys of hundreds of teens. Addiction and substance abuse was a very common struggle for my students, and as I accumulated experience with this population, specific patterns emerged.
Too often, addictive behaviors are often understood purely as individual pathology: a problem afflicting a person, albeit a concern with familial, social and employment consequences. When we widen the lens, however, we can see the broader cultural contexts that encourage or inhibit individuals from engaging in these behaviors. The role of the workplace in affecting alcohol and other drug use is an important site for the development of this understanding. This short piece will introduce you to some of the cultural factors that promote or protect against addictive behaviors in the workplace.
To say that your company culture supports addictive behaviors is, emphatically, not to say that you or any other decision maker actively condones unhealthy relationships to alcohol, drugs or other compulsive behaviors. The language of enabling used to be common in the literature on addiction.1 The enabler is the person who emotionally, materially or tacitly supports the individual in continuing her or his addictive behaviors. This idea retains tremendous popular usage in mutual-support societies and in communities of treatment organized in concert with those societies. But there is a lot of judgment and personalization at work in the language of “enablers.” It assigns moral culpability to the people responding to the challenge as well as to the individuals struggling with the challenging behaviors. Instead of a personal failing, we can profitably think of cultures as enabling or inhibiting, risk-elevating or minimizing, promoting addictive behaviors or promoting substance wellness.
Let’s take a look at a significant opportunity concerning substance wellbeing in the workplace: prevention. If we can reach people earlier in the progression of their struggles with alcohol and other drugs, we can improve outcomes, avoid downstream consequences, and help individuals re-direct their energies towards thriving at their place of employment.
The Good News? Ditching Denial has Big Payoff
Workit Health understands itself, its program and its membership as contributing to a recent and important cultural shift in behavioral health. There is an ongoing evolution from a value-laden and moralizing understanding of addictive behaviors towards a more nuanced view that is both empowering and scientific. We are hardly alone in this. Maia Szalavitz opens her rightly lauded Unbroken Brain with an author’s note about language: her ardent desire to replace stigmatizing and dehumanizing language with terms like “person with addiction,” emphasizing the humanity and the complexity of her subjects. She similarly advocates for “substance misuse” in place of “drug abuse,” given the negativity associated with “abuse.” For closely related reasons, Workit Health treats addictive behaviors, rather than addicts or alcoholics. Many members of the Workit family may not identify with the imagined severity of the condition popularly meant by words like “addict” or “alcoholic.” Instead, these members want to manage their relationship to substances outside of the larger frame of an identity: “drinking less” for instance, not“recovering from alcoholism.” But this choice in language is also part of a deep commitment.