Most Addicts Find Little Tolerance in the Workplace

When celebrity TV host Pat O'Brien reportedly entered a rehab facility last week for alcohol abuse, his name was merely scribbled onto the long list of Hollywood players to admit a substance problem and seek treatment before an inevitable return to the spotlight.

For celebrities, a swing through the revolving door of rehab is often not just a career blip but a right of passage. That's quite a contrast from ordinary Americans with drug addictions, most of whom are given far fewer chances to get their professional lives back on track.

Addiction experts say many working Americans who go to rehab face not only humiliation among fellow workers, but also may get only one chance at rehabilitation.

But it's not necessarily so for celebrities.

O'Brien, host of "The Insider," entered rehab last week for the second time since 2005, according to New York's Daily News. At least initially, his employer appeared to support the troubled host.

In a prepared statement, the syndicated entertainment news magazine show said, "O'Brien and his doctors felt this is the best course for maintaining his sobriety."

'Kept on Drinking'

O'Brien spent time in rehab in 2005 after a series of taped phone calls he made to a woman were publicly released.

"Let's just [expletive] have sex and fun and drugs and go crazy," he said during one call.

O'Brien also admitted to Dr. Phil McGraw on a television special that he had started drinking in the 1960s and "kept drinking."

"Celebrities can have more chances," said Tia Brown, senior editor for the celebrity magazine In Touch. "They are put on a pedestal — because of a perception of the stress they are under pressure or their position — and people are more forgiving. And it helps their celebrity."

"Pat O'Brien has become quite a brand at 'The Insider,' and people sympathize when celebrities like him are battling addiction," Brown said. "It makes them feel more human and vulnerable, and they want them to succeed."

Esther Newberg of ICM, O'Brien's agent, did not return calls from

An estimated 23.8 million Americans meet the criteria for addiction — mostly for alcohol abuse — but only 3.1 million get treatment, according to the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers.

Under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, companies with more than 15 employees cannot discriminate against an employee who seeks help in a rehabilitation program.

The law also applies to those who are not currently using drugs and may have a drug history.

Beyond that, how many chances a worker gets, "depends on the corporation and what policies they have in place," said Jane George-Falvy, a management specialist at the University of Washington.

But when it comes to peer acceptance in the workplace, most addicts don't get the pass that sports stars and high-profile figures like O'Brien did.

"I would like to believe that society is more accepting, and in some instances we are," said Ronald Hunsicker, president of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. "But when it comes down to the person next door and the person we work with, there is a lot of prejudice talk that we don't do with other diseases like diabetes."

"The vast majority of human resource regulations give people one chance and would say that if you get help and do OK, you're fine," said Hunsicker. "But a second time you're automatically out."

Corporate 'Disconnect'

Indeed, nearly one in four human resource professionals say their companies are less likely to hire a person in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, according to a survey conducted by the Minnesota-based Hazelden Foundation as part of its corporate education campaign.

"Our survey reveals a stunning disconnect in corporate America," said William C. Moyers, the Hazelden Foundation vice president for external affairs. "Enlightened beliefs aren't translated into the practice of directing employees into treatment, thanks to the stigma of addiction and a lack of knowledge about it."

Not completely so, said Richard Huff, who, as television editor, reported the O'Brien story for the Daily News.

"We are living in a world where people get multiple chances now," he said. "We'd be mortified [if colleagues knew we were in rehab] but we wouldn't be out of work. How many celebrities go in and out now? Robert Downey Jr. still gets work."

Decades ago, journalism and alcohol went hand in hand, but those days are long gone, according to both Huff and Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute.

"There's been a transformation in the industry when addicts were pushed into rehab and were fired," she said. "Plenty of them were very talented and brilliant people, but were asked to leave their newsrooms because they couldn't kick the bottle."

Today entry-level drug testing is standard operating procedure from businesses ranging from Home Depot to news organizations. McBride said she "peed in the cup" for a job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

More to the point, said McBride, is whether O'Brien can be objective and provide "fair and accurate" reports on other stars who seek drug treatment. The show host also needs to retain his audience's trust, she said.

Regardless of the credibility issue, O'Brien's history of alcohol abuse in the public eye has thus far not been enough to sink his career.

"My prayers are with Pat," said Rick Kirkham, a former crack addict who worked for television's "Inside Edition." "He is doing the right thing to get back on track, and I hope his peers and the industry, in general, support him in getting back to work soon."

Kirkham, who has been clean for eight years, got multiple second chances before turning his life around and producing the award-winning documentary about his life "TV Junkie."

"Remember," he said, "even our president is a recovering alcoholic. His credibility obviously wasn't an issue in his election."