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Is Addiction Common Among Executives?

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In films and television, executives are often shown using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the high stress that they often face. While executives do face many unique challenges related to their job, addiction is a disease that does not pick and choose based on career. Anyone can be impacted. In fact, many aspects of working as a professional leader can put an individual at risk of addiction. This includes working in a stressful and demanding environment as well as certain personality traits that are common among executives. 

In general, executives are highly focused, driven, and successful individuals. Facing addiction and getting help can be challenging. It may require addressing and working through shame around this problem to begin to get help and start to heal. 

Addiction Among Executives

As a disease, addiction does not discriminate. Anyone in any profession, from teachers to executives to scientists, can struggle with addiction. While employment is important in recovery, financial or career status does not protect executives from addiction. Addiction is a result of multiple factors, some of which are heritable, while others are environmental.

According to a survey published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 11.4% of those in managerial roles have an addiction issue. This is the sixth highest on a scale of 19 professions assessed. While not all managers are executives, this shows that many executives do struggle with addiction. 

Traits That Make Executives Susceptible to Addiction 

While each person who is an executive is different, certain traits are more commonly found among executives. Many executives are less agreeable and are more likely to take risks. Both of these personality traits can impact the risk of addiction. Additionally, working as an executive can be highly stressful, which can increase the risk of substance abuse. 

Lack of Agreeableness

While every executive may have a different set of traits, the job requires tenacity and drive. Agreeableness is a personality trait that describes when someone puts others’ needs in front of their own. While agreeableness often makes employees more likable, researchers have shown that agreeableness is associated with lower extrinsic career success. Therefore, executives are likely to be less agreeable than others.

The personality trait of agreeableness is also negatively associated with multiple types of drug addiction. Researchers have found that those who struggle with addiction tend to score lower on the scale of agreeableness. 

Risk Taking 

Executives are leaders who have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Part of becoming an executive is learning and growing in one’s professional career. There are many opportunities for working professionals. However, it takes someone willing to take risks to take advantage of those opportunities. 

Once executives have become leaders, they also need to take risks in order to be agile and successfully address issues. As they work with a variety of working professionals, executives need to find ways to be successful as a company and as a leader. Therefore, they need to take certain risks that help them to improve as individuals and as the leader of a team.

Risk-taking, however, is also associated with drug and alcohol use. When someone like an executive is typically a risk taker, they may be more susceptible to starting or worsening substance use habits.


In the U.S., stress is incredibly prevalent. This includes a high rate of stress for executives. Research shows that stress for executives is due to multiple factors that include job pressures. Working professionals face must face competition to become a leader and maintain a leadership position. Stress management techniques like lifestyle changes and breathing can help to alleviate and manage stress.

Drugs and alcohol are often used to self-medicate for stress. While having a drink socially is not an issue, long-term stress can lead to continual use of drugs and alcohol. It becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism. Then, when stressed, cravings can occur as a behavior to manage the stress. While stress is normal for professional leaders, it can make you more susceptible to drug and alcohol use and addiction. 

Executives: Getting Help 

While professional leaders are highly competent and respected individuals, they are not immune to addiction. In fact, many aspects of a working professional’s life and temperament can increase the risk of addiction. 

Shame and embarrassment are normal for those struggling with addiction. However, addiction is a disease that hijacks the pleasure centers of the brain. Causing the brain to create cravings for substances that overrun the desire for things that had previously felt important. Working through shame is an important part of treatment and recovery. It allows you to accept the nature of addiction and your feelings about it and move forward with your life.

For working professionals, an effective recovery program might include therapy, medication, and peer-support groups. However, it will also include individualized support that is flexible and created to suit your needs. Individualized support helps you to address addiction and any accompanying mental health disorders. Learning new methods to cope with stress and other emotions is crucial as it will allow you to succeed as an executive while remaining healthy on all levels. 


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