Addiction in the Financial Industry

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Traders, Bankers, Investors

substance abuse treatment for financial institutionsDrug abuse is extremely costly to society and to American businesses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the cost of drug abuse to American businesses is nearly $600 billion yearly. These costs include missed productivity, absenteeism, issues with poor performance, and the financing of various treatment programs and interventions for employees.

The financial industry has a reputation as being a high drug abuse industry, particularly due to its portrayal in the media, such as in films like The Wolf of Wall Street. However, the overall figures regarding rates of substance use disorders and substance abuse in the financial services and investment industry are actually surprisingly lower than many may expect.

According to most recent available data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for the period covering 2008 to 2012:

  • Over all of the occupations surveyed by SAMHSA, the average rate of individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder was 9.5 percent.
  • The percentage of individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder in the finance and insurance industries was 9.4 percent, equivalent to the overall average.
  • Over all of the occupations surveyed, 8.7 percent of individuals reported heavy alcohol use in the month prior to the survey; in the financial services industry 7.4 percent of individuals reported heavy alcohol use during the month prior to the survey.
  • Over all the occupations surveyed, 8.6 percent reported using illicit drugs within the month prior to the survey; in the financial services and insurance industry 6.5 percent of individuals reported using illicit drugs in the month prior to the survey.

Thus, based on the latest available data from SAMHSA, substance abuse in the financial services industry is relatively equivalent with the average rate of drug use reported in all occupations. However, there are a couple of caveats to consider here:

  • The survey collects the self-reports of the participants. Even though the survey is anonymous and individuals cannot be singled out, there still may be some varying rates of error as self-report surveys may often suffer from what is known as a social desirability bias. This bias occurs when individuals attempt to report the information they think is most consistent with notions of political correctness or social acceptance as opposed to giving accurate information about their behavior.
  • The survey covers employees from all levels of the insurance and financial services industry. Many of these individuals such as bank tellers have extremely low rates of substance use/abuse.
  • Attempting to get information from the industry itself may be problematic as Wall Street companies and other financial services companies are extremely tightlipped about the rates of substance abuse that go on with their employees.

Substance Abuse among Investment Bankers and Financial Managers

Numerous sources, such as an article from the Business Insider and the books Bullish Thinking: The Advisers Guide to Advising and Thriving on Wall Street and Addiction at Work: Tackling Drug Use and Misuse in the Workplace, report that substance abuse in the financial services sector, such as Wall Street, has declined significantly overall compared to earlier decades such as the 1970s, 1980s, and even the1990s. According to these sources, the industry has gone through several phases where certain types of drug use were popular.

  • Cocaine use was popular in the 1970s. Cocaine is still used today; however, its use is most likely primarily restricted to individuals who have been using it for relatively lengthy periods of time.
  • Marijuana is still a popular drug among workers in all industries; however, cannabis products are not a major issue in the financial services sector.
  • The use of Quaaludes was popular in the 1980s through the 1990s, but is no longer a significant issue.
  • GHB, ecstasy, and Ritalin achieved some popularity in the 1990s, but these drugs are not common drugs of abuse currently.
  • Adderall and Molly (a newer form of ecstasy) are still common among younger individuals in the financial services industry today; however, they do not have the widespread abuse that is commonly depicted. Stimulant drugs like Adderall are often used to help individuals concentrate for lengthy periods of time and remain awake at work, whereas drugs like ecstasy and Molly are often used in clubs.
  • There are reports that the stimulant Provigil (modafinil) has also become popular among younger individuals on Wall Street.
  • The abuse of stimulant drugs, such as Ritalin and Adderall, and Provigil may actually have links to behaviors that occurs in college and younger individuals.
  • Older individuals in the financial services industry may have slightly higher rates of prescription drug abuse, such as the abuse of narcotic medications; however, these reports are mostly anecdotal.
  • Alcohol abuse is present in the financial services industry, as it is in all industries. According to SAMHSA, alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorders are by far the most common substance use disorders in the United States, and even individuals with other substance use disorders often have co-occurring issues with alcohol abuse.

Driving Factors of Substance Abuse in the Financial Services Industry

Alexandria Michel, an anthropologist, researcher, and former investment banker followed business graduates entering the field of investment brokerage for two specific banks over a nine-year timeframe in an attempt to learn about the influence of the organization on the individual’s cognition, belief system, psychological functioning, and work performance. She tracked four groups of employees. The banks did not allow her to reveal information about the group sizes. Each group was tracked for a period of nine years. At entry to the bank, the average age of the participants was 28. All the participants had an MBA, and the sample was about 50 percent female, but by the fifth year of the study, there had been significant attrition and 65 percent of the participants were white males.

The research was not designed to investigate substance abuse among individuals in the financial services industry; however, due to the subject matter, the observation of heavy substance abuse inevitably appeared in nearly all the individuals followed in the study. Michel found that the stress associated with working extremely long hours, being responsible for other people’s investments, the competitive nature of the business, and the drive and desire to succeed in these individuals were associated with numerous compulsive behaviors and psychological issues.
substance abuse factors in financial industryMichel’s observations were that people were trying to maintain control of their lives by engaging in substance abuse, compulsive gambling, disordered eating behaviors, or other behaviors. Her research attempted to investigate how these types of employees perceive themselves as having autonomy, whereas they actually function under unspoken organizational control. The control by the organization is cloaked by numerous perks offered to these workers and how the organization attempts to meld leisure time and work together.

Her conclusions were that individuals who abuse specific drugs in these industries are often attempting to either demonstrate that they have control over their lives or attempting to establish an identity separate from their organizational ties. Michel found that 80 percent of her participants were struggling with these types of control issues. She believed that the development of substance abuse, eating disorders, idiosyncratic behaviors such as nail biting, and even periods of out-of-control tirades were attempts by individuals to establish some type of personal control over their lives. Michel also noted that when confronted with issues with substance abuse that appeared to be relatively obvious, many of the participants denied an abuse issue and stated that they were in control their behavior.

The book Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace reports that occupations with high rates of substance abuse are often also associated with:

  • Routine, boring, and unfulfilling work
  • Significant stress, such as pressure to perform
  • A significant personal commitment that one’s work performance is a defining feature of who they view themselves to be and how they judge their perception of their self-worth
  • An environment where drug and alcohol use are considered to be normal or is encouraged (e.g., individuals who work in the restaurant and bar industry or high-level professionals who socialize at bars or parties and entertain their clients at clubs, bars, etc.
  • Individuals with substance use disorders often have histories of alcohol or drug use that started relatively early in adolescences or young adulthood
  • A co-occurring psychological condition, such as depression
  • The attitude that using drugs or alcohol is an appropriate coping mechanism or an appropriate means of recreation or socialization

substance abuse in financial institutionsPsychologist Dr. Alan Cass, main author of the book Bullish Thinking: The Advisor’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street, noted that a significant number of individuals in the financial and banking industry who had substance abuse issues also suffered from serious issues with depression. Interestingly, he also noted that many of the more successful brokers and investment bankers were those who had significantly high levels of depressive symptoms. There is a relationship between having a formal diagnosis of depression or some other mental health disorder and a substance abuse issue, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Depression is often associated with a number of unfulfilled dreams, unrealistic expectations of oneself and one’s career, and unrealistic goals for personal and professional life.

Professionals such as investment bankers, brokers, etc., are at a high risk for stress, disappointment, an unbalanced personal and professional life, and the development of psychological issues. While the industry has overall rates of substance use disorders that are not significantly higher when compared to other professions, some of the more high-level professionals may suffer from these issues, and this may increase the risk for them to develop issues with substance abuse.

Signs of Substance Abuse in the Financial Sector

APA offers clinical diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders that are used by mental health professionals in the identification of these issues and the development of an appropriate treatment plan. Several specific types of behaviors and signs occurring at work might signal the presence of a potential substance abuse issue. Often, individuals in the financial services industry are performance-driven, independent, and relatively high-functioning. This can complicate issues with substance abuse in this group as they may not be forthright about their alcohol or drug use.

Some warning signs that may indicate that a person is suffering from substance abuse include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Frequently disappearing from one’s desk, office, and/or workstation or making excuses to go to the bathroom or other areas
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Variations in work performance that may alternate between instances of high productivity followed by instances of low productivity
  • Uncharacteristic inability to make appointments or meet deadlines
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Increasing confrontations with coworkers or clients
  • Memory lapses or issues with attention
  • Deterioration in work performance
  • Periodic issues with hygiene
  • Personality changes that include mood swings, issues with impulse control, depression, etc.

Many of the hiring practices in the financial services industry include background checks and even initial drug testing; however, periodic drug testing has not been established across the industry. Some companies may engage in periodic drug tests for individuals who are on probation or have had issues in the past, and some companies may have requirements regarding drug testing for all their employees, but there is no industry-wide standard. Even though many of the current sources report that the prevalence of the drug use in the financial services industry has declined significantly, based on research such as the study by Alexandria Michel, the development of substance abuse issues is still an area of concern. Recognizing the initial symptoms of substance abuse can go a long way in helping an individual to get into recovery.
Signs of Substance Abuse in the Financial SectorThe treatment protocol for addressing substance use disorders is generally effective for individuals over all occupations and demographic groups. However, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to treating any substance use disorder. Instead, the general treatment protocol should be personalized for each and every individual in such a manner that it capitalizes on their strengths, addresses their weaknesses, and motivates them to stay actively involved in their treatment.

The approach to identifying and treating a substance use disorder in high-functioning professionals is to help them become more objective regarding their behaviors, help them to understand that they do not need to be in control of everything, and assisting them in rearranging their priorities so they learn to balance their professional and personal lives. This often starts with getting the individual to identify with someone else who has a similar problem and then helping them become more open and understanding regarding their own behavior.


  • Employee Assistance Programs: Because of the recognition that substance abuse in the workplace is a serious issue in many professions, many organizations offer their own sources of assistance for their employees, known as EAPs. These sources are often focused on protecting the individual’s privacy as well as offering them assistance. These resources will vary according to the specific organization.
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA): Narcotics Anonymous is a social support group that assists individuals who have issues with drugs.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-Step organization that is primarily focused on alcohol abuse, but often accepts individuals with any form of substance abuse.
  • NIDA: The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers numerous brochures and resources that can be useful for individuals who are interested in finding treatment programs.
  • ASAM: The American Society of Addiction Medicine is a good source of information for individuals interested in understanding substance abuse or finding assistance.
  • SAMHSA: The SAMHSA Treatment Locator Tool can help people find local treatment options. They can also be reached at 1-800-662-HELP.

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