Who are IT's substance abusers?

Alcohol, pot, pills...how widespread is substance abuse among people in the IT field?

One of the reasons I enjoy covering the IT profession so much is that if you put five IT pros in a room to discuss a particular topic, you're likely to get at least six different opinions about it. So when I raised the issue of substance abuse within the IT industry in my blog last week, I fully expected to get the full gamut of reader comments. I wasn't disappointed.

It was a reader who raised the question in the first place, and as I said in my blog post, I hadn't given the issue much thought. So I just threw the question out there: Based on your experience, how widespread is substance abuse among people in the IT field? Not surprisingly, some of that experience has been painful.

"Prior to finally sobering up two years ago, I regularly spent many an evening doing remote support from inside a bottle," one reader wrote. "Long nights and the morning after were almost always propped up with pills. This coping strategy was learned from the other pros that I worked with at three separate shops."

Another reader said that his drinking problem led him to seek treatment and to ultimately become a substance abuse counselor. Many of his clients "were brilliant in their computer-related fields," he said, "but also abused alcohol and illegal drugs."

It's an emotional issue, to be sure. Just raising it was enough to anger one reader.

"Simply asking the question, 'Is my profession rife with substance abuse?' plays right into the agenda of the drug warriors, who are addicted to something more powerfully destructive and addictive than heroin or crack: power," he wrote. He railed against "rampant drug testing [that] has driven a lot of pot smokers out of IT," and he insisted that there's no evidence that drug testing increases productivity.

Other readers agreed that there are fewer abusers now than there were in the past. "I'll admit when I started in this field [15 years ago], there seemed to be a high percentage of pot-headed programmers," one wrote. "I don't know of anyone these days who uses and abuses anything other than caffeine."

One reader clearly misses the good old days.

"After spending almost 30 years as a professional software engineer ... I have seen just about every and anything 'abused.' Alcohol, pot, pills ... have all been a part of every hard-working, hard-partying, high-performance group I've seen," he wrote. "Granted, these days with the influx of so many third-world engineers, whose family heritage and religions take a dim view of these activities, the fun part of software development is dying out, as is the humor. Too damn bad, IMHO."

And from the opposite end of the spectrum: "As a supervisor, I will not trust [substance abusers] to exercise good judgment or hold a trusted position," wrote a reader who showed little patience for downplaying the issue. "How can they possibly have the interests of the company in mind if they are tearing themselves apart?"

Of course, the expression of all these views still doesn't answer the initial question. How widespread is substance abuse among people in the IT field?

A June 2007 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that IT professionals are on the lower end of the substance-abuse scale. Occupations were categorized into "management" (which includes computer and information systems managers) and "mathematical and computer scientists" (which includes programmers, software engineers, systems analysts, and database and network administrators).

The percentage of workers using illicit drugs in the past month was 6.1 for management and 6.9 for the math/computer group. The numbers for heavy alcohol use in a given month were 7.9 and 5.9, respectively. In comparison, 17.4 per cent of food service workers reported using illicit drugs in the past month, while 17.8 per cent of construction workers reported heavy alcohol use.

Those numbers, which are based on data collected from 2002 to 2004, are encouraging, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they might be even lower now. Maybe those people with different family heritages and religions have earned their keep after all.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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