Just as mental health education is becoming more accepted within the workplace, addiction education is right behind it.
While KL finds talking about addiction is still a bit taboo in the corporate space, she’s learned the dialogue is definitely starting to change for the better. More leaders are starting to give themselves permission to be more vulnerable as workplace culture begins to shift towards creating safer spaces and opportunities for employees to be seen and heard about their struggles with addiction.
Listen to KL’s latest podcast about workplace culture and addiction education.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Addiction Education And Safe Spaces In The Workplace
I am here with our Founder and host KL Wells. KL, how are you?
I’m great, ready to talk about the main topic on the floor.
KL just returned from a trip back East to Nashville where she attended the Vistage Chair World. Now, we’re going to talk a little bit about some lessons learned, highlights, insights, and conversations that were had, and maybe some conversations that we should be having. Welcome back. KL, I’d love to dive right in. Give us a little teaser and some feedback on what you learned.
It’s always interesting to me to step back into the executive leadership space and to see what kinds of conversations we’re having and not having related to drugs and alcohol because 1 out 3 American families are dealing with this right now. It is in the C-suite and executive suite. It is just about everywhere I turn because of the work that I do as an executive coach and consultant. We’re out and having these conversations with a lot of people. I’m still experiencing this broad landscape of we’re going to talk about it, not talk about it, dance around it, or act as if it doesn’t exist. We’re still in this really interesting place, given the magnitude of what I would consider a pandemic at this point.
I’ve always wondered this as you’re going through these conferences and having these meetings where you would typically focus on leadership topics. How do you find that little inroad, or where’s that little permissive voice that says, “I’m going to shift the conversation a little bit”? How does the topic of alcoholism, addiction, and other drugs come into conversations at this level?
At this point, how it’s entering the conversation is through the lens of as a coaching consultant, what are we normally seeing in our practices that are the societal issues of our time? Rampant suicide, depression, anxiety, stress, and adult children with alcoholism, it’s all across the board. It appears to be coming in waves now. Alcoholism and drug addiction is in amongst a whole lot of things that we’re dealing with as a society and as a culture. It gets lumped in there.
What I would say is there are absolutely crossovers in terms of how we talk about this and dropping the stigma and the judgment that goes along with this. There are some nuances to this because it is different to talk about a disease of alcoholism and drug addiction versus potentially mental health issues, although those obviously overlap, or societal issues such as stress, anxiety, and those kinds of things that are taking place. There’s this weaving taking place and across the board, real variety in how open, available, and willing we are to have these conversations.
It’s like where we were a couple of years ago with mental health when it was taboo. Now, all of a sudden, people will openly talk about mental health as if it were something that’s part of our every day, as it should. We’re still in that space of awkwardness. We’re still in that space where I find a lot of times when you talk about the disease, people still go almost not even attaching the word disease to alcoholism and addiction, so that is still the same way we would talk about cancer. When you start to guide or lead the discussion into that realm that’s a bit more unknown, do you find people just do this bottle up, or are people starting to feel more vulnerable and safe to discuss it?
I think there’s a combination. There are certainly people that I’ve run into that don’t fit in a spreadsheet. We’re not going there. They don’t create a psychologically safe space for that conversation to come up. I’m very open and psychologically safe with all the people that I work with. As I begin to poke at whether somebody’s open to having a conversation or not, when they are open, I find out that their experience is somewhat similar to mine and that we’re seeing it in our practices a lot. The next step is, what are you doing to hold the space for people or executives to have these conversations in a way that they feel heard and seen without judgment and stigma and can actually talk it out?
Most of the time, we’re carrying stuff around in our heads. It isn’t until we say it out loud where like, “I actually heard myself say that,” and it lands differently. To be able to speak it and talk about it, what I find is the people that are open to doing that, it’s a huge weight off their shoulders for one thing because they’ve just been carrying it for so long.
The other piece is if you are somebody who’s dealing with an exec or an executive team that, for instance, one of my stories is the CEO’s son overdosed and died. How do you have these conversations with them so that they feel like they can get their feet up under them and then learn the skill sets to be in this at the same time?
I was talking about this earlier. One of the things that I find fascinating, particularly for people in my seat, is this notion of what you are doing to prepare yourself for your day. Every time I have a meeting, I have no idea what’s going to show up. I don’t know if the story of a nephew trying to commit suicide is going to show up, a spouse just died, a mother from a three-generational family business just died, a sister or a brother. I have no idea when I show up to meet with somebody what’s going to show up to meet me. I do quite a bit of preparation to set myself in a place of peace and calm so that whatever comes my way, I am prepared to hold the space for people.
What do people do at the end of the day to end their day, complete their day, but leave that stuff behind because it’s not our job to carry it forward? It’s the self-care piece for coaches and consultants, but it’s also the self-care piece for executives because they have employees. What we know to be true is that 50% of our employees are distracted by the stuff that’s taking place at home.
I had a conversation. I was working with a woman who focuses on trauma, grief, and loss. We were talking about it as it relates to the workplace. It’s standard that we have sexual harassment training, ethics training, and all of these training programs that come from HR, whatever it is, mandatory. Not once are we a grief-informed, trauma-informed, or addiction-informed organization. We’re behind on that. We can have conversations at the top at the C-suite level, but what does that do in terms of getting a culture involved around that?
Our conversation was interesting. How do you start to bring in workplace training and bring those safe places around addiction, just like anything else that happens in the workplace? I’m trying to remember the number that Mental Health America put out there. Billions in dollars in lost productivity because of addiction and other issues happening in the workplace that quite frankly, no one knows how to handle.
First is, we have to allow for the conversations to begin to take place. As much as possible, I believe that execs need to be skilled up. We are absolutely in that time now. Daniel Pink, who was one of the major thought leaders of our time, has spoken to this notion that the left-brain executives of the past were the ones who ruled. The future executives are going to be right-brained, which is creativity and possibilities, and seeing how dots connect in ways that other people don’t see that, and much more empathetic, compassionate, and able to hold conversations of this kind of import. We have a whole transformation that we’re just at the beginning of, in terms of getting comfortable with talking about this, if we have it in our families, owning it, and then making it safe for our employees.
In reflection, I can’t believe it’s already February of 2023, but we did a lot of retrospective thinking over the last 30 days in thinking about what the things coming out of the pandemic, moving more towards a conversation and narrative that we as an organization were trying to change, and some lessons learned. What are some of those aha moments that have popped out for you that may be evident or maybe completely unexpected?
I think back to some of the shows that we’ve done, and one, in particular, was the gentleman who spoke to this notion of never giving up hope. The way that I think about it is you never know when you’re five minutes away from the miracle. I’m not just talking about the miracle of somebody that you love deciding to really tackle the disease in whatever, shape, or form that takes, but I’m also talking about the miracle that occurs when a loved one is comfortable with loving deeply and being in pain with somebody that they love. That, again, is a skillset, mindset, and heart set to get to.
It’s been something that I’ve evolved to over time, is that my job is not to “fix my son or make him well,” or whatever along those lines. What we know to be true about addiction through Dr. Gabor Maté is that addiction and alcoholism are rooted in trauma. My job as a mom, exec, coach, and consultant is to help people lean and move through the pain to the other side. I know the journey because I’ve done that myself personally so many times. I can hold the space for the pain and work with people to be in it, express it, release it, and begin to move to the other side of it. That is extraordinarily valuable for people.Addiction and alcoholism are rooted in trauma. Click To Tweet
Even with my son, he needed to lean into the pain of, quite frankly, at the end, wanting to kill himself. He was so like he had just tapped out. He had done everything he knew to do. He was just dark and desperate for this disease to stop to the point of wanting to kill himself because that was the thing he only thought about at that moment. There was this moment where he looked at a picture, and he thought about us, and he made a different decision and decided to lean into the pain and suffering of getting clean and sober.
You touched on something that Dr. Gabor said around addiction and alcoholism being rooted in trauma. One of the things that I’ve learned to be true over the last couple of years is that trauma is never to be compared. Rank trauma on a scale of 1 to 10, and many times people have said, “My trauma isn’t that bad, so I don’t ever talk about it because I don’t want people to think that I’m complaining.” For me, also, being in recovery myself, my trauma wasn’t being in a war-torn country or my parents passing away. You think about these kinds of traumas that we immediately associate with these incredible circumstances and responses.
Mine was simply fear of failure and being betrayed at the office, things that you wouldn’t normally set you off, per se, but when you look at it in context, and then you start to really look into all of the things that happen, your self-belief, all of that stuff, the narratives that play the trauma, all of a sudden, goes up into this massive story that you’ve concocted in your head. That was a big a-ha for me is this idea of people think about the disease of alcoholism and addiction relating to some huge, massive catastrophic event when trauma can be very simple.
I think this is the misnomer about what trauma really is, people tend to think about the situation or the circumstances of trauma, what happened, and that is not the issue. The issue is, what’s the meaning that we make out of the situation or circumstance? That’s always the issue. It’s the stories we make up on our heads. It’s the beliefs that we carry around that “activate” the trauma into such a pain for us that we want to get away from the pain. That’s the differentiation, and we’re caught in this really illusional land because we’re thinking about comparing traumas.
We’re only comparing situations or circumstances. That has nothing to do with this. You peel it back a little farther, it’s like, what’s the meaning that we attach to whatever took place? What are the stories we tell ourselves? What are the beliefs that we have? What are the thoughts that we think? That’s where the work is.
I bring that up because I think sometimes, or at least I’ve noticed, when we talk about grief, loss, or trauma in the office, there’s this almost like, we only speak of trauma when it affects the whole organization. It takes something so large for it to be discussed. That’s one of those aha moments for me was talking about the small stuff because the small stuff ends up becoming some of the most catastrophic. That’s what it was for me, too. I took something really small, a moment in time, and I turned into a catastrophic event for myself.
You turned it into a monumental pain that you couldn’t bear. The only avenue that you sought at that time was drinking. What I would say is no matter what it is, we make it into such a monumental pain that we can’t bear it. When we can’t bear it, and we only hold it interior to ourselves, then we are cutting off our life support. That’s another reason why the whole notion of the stigma has got to stop.
The judgment has got to stop because things could become so much easier to bear if we just gave voice to it and realized we’re never alone in this. There are well-worn paths of people that have been through all these things, made different meanings out of it, have different stories about it, and have created habits of thought and behavior that have helped them work through the pain and get to the other side. That’s where the skillsets are.The judgment around addiction has to stop. It could become so much easier to bear if we give people a voice and make them realize they’re never alone. Click To Tweet
On that as well, I’ve worked at companies where you do not mix business and your personal life. Church and state, there’s no way these are going to commingle. Other organizations where, again, it’s that more freedom to have an open dialogue and whatnot. I think part of it is the changing workplace culture, not necessarily from the top down but from the bottom up.
That’s one thing I’ve learned is sometimes the people that are entrenched in the day-to-day work that are really driving productivity, culture, strategy, and creativity, all of those individuals, that’s where a lot of that stuff should start, and allow it to rise to the top. At least, the way I grew up was leadership up here, and they are always allowing things to trickle down. To me, this is one of those powerful things that the trickle-up effect could have a lot of influence on how we change the narrative as well.
I think that’s what’s showing up in our labor force now. At the same time, my experience has been when I lead with vulnerability, people follow. When I lead with my own truth, people follow. I really do believe that part of my role and responsibility as a genuine, authentic, courageous leader is to lead with vulnerability and truth of my own personal journey. Not laying it on people, but also giving them permission to have these conversations. I think it’s all across the board.
What I can tell you is I’ve been in plenty of organizations where unless the top is willing to be vulnerable and have these conversations, the bottom sure as heck isn’t. Nope. This whole notion, I don’t know who made it up, I would love to get my hands on them, that we separate ourselves at the door when we walk through the door of work. We do not. We never have and never will. That is a complete illusion and denial of what’s taking place. I really do believe that it comes from this notion that people aren’t people. They’re just things to get things done. If you still believe that, then you’re going to get left behind in the financial success of tomorrow.
One of the number one things Millennials are now looking for in companies and places to work for is culture, which wasn’t necessarily the case. It was the image of the brand, the success of the brand, and how much money I can make. It was all about those egos serving kinds of things at the top. Now, a lot of it’s the soft-skill stuff. Do I have the ability to be a part of something that’s amazing? Is my voice going to be heard? Can I have creativity as well as a strategy? The Millennials are demanding it.
The Millennials are the loudest voice along these lines. I will tell you, as a Baby Boomer, this has been the world that I’ve lived in for decades. I have always believed that a human being walked in first. I’ve always believed that we were always going to be more powerful if we galvanized together for a shared fate of meaning that mattered. My work has been at the edges of what is now emerging. I remember early in my career when people would say to me, “The employee leaves their personal stuff at home,” I just said, “BS. That is absolutely not true.” When somebody has a sick child at home, trust me, when they come to work, that’s what they’re thinking about.Employees cannot leave their personal stuff at home. When they have a sick child at home, that’s all they’re thinking about when they go to work. Click To Tweet
Fortunately, I had the opportunity and I have enough companies now that I can do this to create a safe space for people to bring their humanity to work and feel that they are seen and heard. For some people, this can be the only break they get from the stuff that’s going on at home. I’m willing to give them that. Sometimes, I will tell you, there are enough execs that I work with, and I may be the only hug they get that week or month. I can tell you, every single one of the people that I work with gets a hug. They know that I love them. I tell them. It is a relationship as far as I’m concerned for the long term, no matter how long I work with them or how short I work with them, and they know it. It gives them permission to be human.
Anything else? Lessons learned coming up from shows that we’ve done, a-ha moments from, even outside of the executive space, anything that came up? I’m just trying to think if there’s something specific. One of the things that I had a lot of conversations with individuals about was this idea of the shattered dream. Here’s the expectation of what everything’s going to be put out in front of me.
What happens? The shower door, when you close it too heavy, and all of a sudden, it shatters into a million pieces. How much of that is becoming more prevalent than ever, especially coming out of a pandemic? I talked about this with my dad all the time. His generation was like, there goes the ladder, and then ours is a suspension bridge that’s going all over the place.
We’re in this space where we’re trying to figure out who we are in this and what’s really true and not. Certainly, the pandemic gave a crystallization of what really matters. At the end of the day, so many people were lost and it got clear quickly what was important. Corporations that did not care at all who you were or anything about your family.
I’m sorry, I’m not going to spend 8, 10 hours, sometimes 12 hours a day working for somebody who doesn’t give a nitwit about me, and who doesn’t understand that I want to spend time with my family. I’m old enough at this point that when I off into the sunset, so to speak, I’m very clear I want my friends and family around me.
Those are the people in my life that matter the most, and I want them to know. I’m very clear about delivering that message on a consistent basis that I love them, appreciate them, and I say thank you a lot. We’re in the throes of this cultural, spiritual, and societal transformation at this point, and we’re questioning the things that we thought to be true. It’s that notion of the unquestioned answers, what’s really true and not? I’ve talked about this before. We are surrounded by a paradigm of power over and control of, which means the more money, power, prestige, and things you have, the more important you are, which is complete BS.
Anybody who has money, power, things, and all of it who gets to the end of their life, none of that goes with them. In the corporate arena, we’re seeing more and more executives, CEOs, and C-suite executives that are willing to actually look at what is success. Success is not just success at work. If I have success at work, but my family is in shatters, I have a divorce, I have kids that are going here and there, and all the things are unraveling from a personal perspective, that’s not success. To some extent, a lot of people have bought into the notion of you get the degree, you get the pedigree, you get the job, and you make a lot of money, but basically, you’re selling your soul to the job.
Now, people are waking up more to the notion that that is actually soul-severing and soul-sucking and I don’t know that I’m willing to do that anymore. For instance, I met somebody at this conference that I was at. It was a husband and wife. The husband is a Vistage chair, and the wife was accompanying him, and I got to have a great conversation with her. She said during the pandemic, they moved to the country.
He does his work now 2 weeks of the month, and then they spend 2 weeks of the month in the country. They have completely reoriented their life to the things that matter most to them at this point. I’m talking to more people who are doing that or wants to do that. They’re just not sure how to unravel what they’ve created. I work with a lot of people to help them unravel what they’ve created, and recreate a life that they’re inspired to live.
There was something very symbolic yesterday. We were living here in San Diego. We went down into the harbor, and we were sitting there just enjoying the afternoon sun. As you look out into the harbor, there are hundreds of boats. Right where we were, there was this enormous yacht, enough where we googled it just to see it was owned by a billionaire, $150 million ship. Right next to it, literally sharing the same slip, is this probably $20,000 to $30,000 motorboat that goes out in the ocean.
$150 million yacht closed up, cold, and shutters down the whole thing. Here comes this happy couple with a pizza box in hand, a box of wine, walking to their little boat, and they’re laughing and having fun. The juxtapositioning of the $150 million versus the happiness next to it, I’ll take that in a heartbeat. We kept seeing the people walk down, “Are they going to go on there?” It was really fun to see that.
The juxtaposition now is much more alive and well. People are noticing this more. I think one of the great gifts out of COVID and the times that we’re living in is that people are actually questioning what is the life that inspires them and unraveling the life that they thought they were supposed to live or they should live. As I said, I work with a lot of family-owned businesses. How many 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations take on the mantle of the family-owned business and are miserable because it is not their life’s purpose or calling? To those courageous enough to have these conversations that are real and raw, then we begin to help pull back the layers to examine whether they really want to do this.
In particular, 1 family that had been 3 generations, to the parents’ credit, I met with the next generation to work with them to find out, did they really truly in their heart of hearts, want to take on the family business. One of them was in recovery from alcoholism at that point. One of the things that were heavy on that person’s shoulders was the guilt of not taking on the family business. I was that intermediary to give them permission and say, “Trust me when I say your parents will support you completely if you do not want to take this family business on.” It took months before it finally sunk in, and they believed that that was actually the truth, and then they opted out. They were free.
If they’re emotionally fit, the business stays fit, and they bring the right people in to carry on the business, so everyone wins. The person loses, the business loses, legacy loses.
What you said there was one of the things that came out of my time in Nashville. It was this clarity around emotional fitness is. We talk a lot about emotional intelligence. They’re very different things. Emotional intelligence is you can read somebody. You can show up with empathy and compassion. You have the ability to be present with somebody.
Emotional fitness is when you find yourself knocked upside the head with something that shows up out of the blue. You have the ability and the skillset to do what you need to do in a relatively short period of time, and then be super present, and in a place where you can make really great decisions out of creativity and possibilities. That is a skillset.
That’s part of the world that I live in is helping people develop that skillset, believe that they can, for one thing, that they are not at the whim of whatever shows up, or they’re not stuck. We had this conversation earlier about being stuck, and I can’t see my way out of this. That’s part of the disease is you get in this hole, whether you’re a loved one or somebody who’s dealing with the disease, where you get stuck.
You need somebody to give you a little hand up, help you see it a little differently, and help you take that next step out of the darkness. Getting back to Daniel Pink again earlier, what he talked about is we live in the framework right now of you want to get the information so that you can know what your next steps are.
He said, “We’re not in that place anymore because nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re in uncertainty, unknown, and uncharted territories.” He said, “Now, we’ve got to flip it. You just need to act and then figure it out.” That’s the same thing for addiction and alcoholism, is we need to keep moving forward. We need to look for the people who have created a mindset, heart set, and belief set that we aspire to get to and find out what they did to get there.
Where does success reside? Jim Rohn said success leaves clues. What Voices InCourage is doing is pulling the threads of thriving success so that people can move from crisis, to struggling, to surviving, and to thriving. It’s absolutely doable. We’ve all been on this journey. It’s taking that next step. It’s acting without knowing all the information because we’re never going to know all the information.
Going back to where we started is never give up hope. There’s always a way and solution. I think for far too long, we’ve turned a bit of a blind eye to it, and we haven’t seen hope as necessarily something that we can buy into. This is one of those things having been in the trenches and having seen family and executives in the trenches that this too shall pass.
There is hope and solution, and it’s why we continue to have these conversations and hope that more and more people see them, share them, and be a part of them because those statistics are going in the wrong direction. It used to be 1 in 6 men turned to substance abuse. Now, it’s 1 in 4. 5% of all suicides are men. It used to be 1 in 8 women turned to substances. Now, it’s 1 in 6. We’re not trending in the right direction, and obviously, the pandemic has shown that.
I think the pandemic was a catalytic supercharger in showing or exemplifying the fact that we are not skilled up. We don’t have the skills, generally speaking, if the trends are going in the wrong direction, to be able to handle the pain, uncertainty, volatility, and unknowns. I’m sorry, but that’s life. We need to skill up and learn how to navigate in the midst of uncertainty, unknowns, disease, and pain. What most people are trying to do is stay away from the pain because it hurts. It’s like putting your hand on a hot stove. What they don’t understand is that it’s like the chrysalis. You have to go through the pain to get to the miracle and the best version of yourself. That’s what creates amazing people.
I think for me, it was one of those things where here’s more heavy thing on my plate. I can’t take on one more thing. I didn’t realize that if I took on that one heavy thing, it solved everything else. I think that, to me, was a total mindset shift. If we add one more thing to the plate, what if that one more thing ends up taking and clearing your plate for something pretty incredible? That’s what I loved about being able to visualize the work that way. For those that are struggling with getting into it, but can visualize really well, imagine your plate being completely cleared. You just took one more courageous step to focus on something.
I think that goes hand in hand with this notion of pain pushes until vision pulls is pain is here to serve us. When you feel like life is falling apart, honest to God, I can speak from experience over and over again. It is actually falling together. If it hadn’t been for Sam’s addiction, I would not be the person I am now. I know it sounds crazy at times, but I am so grateful for his disease because he was the catalyst for me to stretch, grow, get outside myself, and become who I was meant to become.Pain is here to serve us. When you feel like life is falling apart, it is actually falling together. Click To Tweet
I think that’s a great parting comment, per se. We’ve gone from here over to here. I think at the end of the day, we spoke about and started with an executive conversation and narrative, and we ended with a solution. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the home office, in the office, at home, in your community. It’s all one and the same. It comes back to that. As we wrap up our conversation, any other parting comments, per se, KL?
What I’m thinking about right now is that it is Sam’s 310th day of being clean and sober. There’s something to be said about him leaning into his disease and pain, coming out the other side, and choosing life. We had a conversation with him last night. What my wife, Patty, said was there’s a maturity in him. There’s a depth of vulnerability, honesty, trueness, and genuineness to who he is now that wasn’t present prior to this disease. Watching him unfolding into this light, compassionate, loving man gives me hope for what’s to come and who we are becoming. I want that everybody who’s reading to know because it’s just one more thread of the emergence of a lighter and brighter world.
Congrats to Sam. That’s quite a 180 from where we were. That’s awesome.
That’s for sure. Thanks, Tucker.
Thank you, everyone, for reading. This was a fantastic conversation. Thank you, KL, for sharing your ideas and insights from your trip. We look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the show. Until then, stay strong, healthy, have the conversations, be vulnerable, courageous, and help us change the narrative. Please visit us at VoicesInCourage.com. Sign up. Be a part of this community. It’s growing. It’s amazing. The resources are fantastic. All of those questions that you have, find other like-minded individuals that are going through the exact same thing. We’d love to see you there.
Thank you, Tucker.