VITAL SIGNS: Troublesome habits - Drugs often pass unnoticed, seen as temperament or the excitement of the deal

VITAL SIGNS: Troublesome habits - Drugs often pass unnoticed, seen as temperament or the excitement of the deal - The thing about Bob, the thing that dominates all other things about Bob, just isn't talked about. Everyone knows he has a loyalty to somethi

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The thing about Bob, the thing that dominates all other things about Bob, just isn't talked about. Everyone knows he has a loyalty to something more than his work or his family. Unaccountably for a quiet accountant type, Bob has mood swings in which he gets hyper and paranoid.

After a million newspaper articles on how to spot a heavy coke habit, even his colleagues, the quiet sort themselves, know what's happening.

And it makes them miserable because they like Bob and they haven't the faintest idea what to do.

Meanwhile, just 20 miles away from Bob's Home Counties corporate office, in deepest Soho, David is wide open about the same habit. In the music business in which he works it's all part of the culture. To hear his job title, to read his corporate vision, you'd think David lived in roughly the same world as Bob. But David's coke habit is accepted by everyone.

If it becomes troublesome, they all know who to pack him off to. Everyone in David's office has scored coke.

Business cultures vary hugely in their responses to addictions. It depends what it is, how it affects people's work and what kind of role you've got. In creative businesses - media, entertainment, the arts - there's still that indulgence of 'difficult' people who bring in big money and great kudos. Just look at the history of Hollywood.

In a food conglomerate, in a corporate office in a Home Counties suburban campus, there's less romantic mythology and a greater respect for flow-charts. But it's in precisely those ordered places that the new addictions are showing up.

We got used to the idea of cocaine in the City in the '80s, where the chancers moved on from Bolly to Charlie as Britain roared up to Black Wednesday. Once again, there's that idea of the talent that can do as it likes. And they've just opened a City branch of the famous Priory clinic.

You couldn't get more acknowledgment than that. But a Priory in every big office park, that's a bit ... counter-intuitive.

What conventional employers worry about with addictions is their impact on your work, on the culture and on the corporate reputation.

It all depends whether the addiction is discernible - and who it's discernible to. Drinking is highly visible; the most innocent suburban secretaries know what it looks like. Drugs often pass unnoticed, seen as temperament, the excitement of the deal. Food addictions are painfully obvious. Gambling is more difficult; how are you to know the man in the next office has wagered his house in a session on the Edgware Road?

These addictions say to conventional employers that you're not in control, that the obsession is more important than your job. They demand a high degree of predictability.

Conversely, for 'personality' businesses a spot of addiction is built into the culture because that kind of unpredictability is part of the business model.

Whatever the business, it's your immediate colleagues who'll mind most.

They may have to cover for you and they'll feel conflicted when you're in a heightened state - obviously drunk at 3pm or, impelled by a 'sex addiction', harassing an 18-year-old office junior.

And there's always the worry you might do something dangerous - make a technical decision, drive a car. That's why addictions are read so differently in medicine and aerospace from music and money. And how will you behave in front of outsiders - the client? Will you appear visibly sozzled or wired at the pitch? Will you even get a sort of commercial drug network going in the firm?

Even with more modest food addictions it's about being out of control and about the visibility. Waddlers are inaesthetic. In big organisations with a regular health-check policy, overweight can hold you back from promotion. And without the cash to dress expensively, you can take on that trailer park, Jerry Springer underclass look.

Conversely, a shopping addiction often provokes admiration in its early stages. Designer clothes can look like devotion to duty, can provoke the thought that you're earning massive bonuses.

But, eventually, big-league addictions spell trouble for everyone else.

If you're conflicted about a colleagues' habit, you can do more than just report him or her or keep quiet. There's a mass of specialist help groups now - NA and AA and many more - that you can talk to. In 2001, they know colleagues are just as important as friends, family or the addicts themselves.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU


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