Overcoming addiction problems: The employer's role

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There is a mutually-reinforcing relationship between employment and recovery

Addictions are on the rise in the UK. This raises the likelihood that at some point one or more of your employees will struggle with an addiction such as substance misuse (e.g. drugs or alcohol), which not only has a personal impact but also causes higher rates of absenteeism, reductions in productivity and job performance and workplace accidents. So knowing how to help employees is an urgent but also sensitive issue.

Research suggests that being employed at the start of treatment improves the chances of completing it successfully, with further evidence that employment can moderate relapse. Work can increase financial independence, engender responsibility, boost confidence and self-esteem and provide meaningful activity. So it’s important that employers are aware of issues around mental health and addiction and are prepared to support employees throughout recovery.

Here are some of the most effective ways to support employees through treatment for addiction:

Know the signs

Don’t be fooled by the generalisation that addictions are rife only in certain professions such as banking or media. Sadly addictions can affect anyone in any career. While people often become very adept at hiding certain patterns of behaviour in the workplace it’s important that employers invest in training or education so they can spot the first sign of a problem and help staff access expert intervention if needed. The 'signs' of addictions will vary, but could include frequent problems with time-keeping, difficulties concentrating and completing tasks, displaying mood or behavioural changes, and avoiding colleagues at particular times such as after lunch. Physical symptoms may include tremors, weight loss, extreme tiredness or bloodshot eyes.

Don’t be afraid to address the problem

Employees are often afraid to come forward and talk to their workplace – whether that’s a colleague, line manager or HR department – about their addictions for fear of the consequences. One survey found that one in five employees believed that if they sought treatment for alcohol or drug addiction they would be fired or passed over for promotion. The reality is that addictions not only affect a person’s wellbeing, but also their performance and productivity at work. So addressing the problem directly but discreetly helps both employer and employee in the long term.

Mind your language

Addictions are classed as a mental health problem – and can lead to serious physical health complications as well as additional issues such as anxiety, depression or self-harm. So it’s vital that the language you use reflects this, and that you avoid at all costs inferring that an addiction is a moral failing or character flaw. The more you understand about the condition and are able to talk to your employee sensitively and accurately, the more likely you are to reduce stigma around mental health problems and encourage the employee to seek help.

Consider different treatment approaches

One approach growing in popularity is for treatment for addiction to be delivered safely and effectively in a familiar home environment. Having expert treatment in a safe sanctuary – a place that’s comfortable and private and somewhere the patient feels totally at home – is often where the best chance of recovery is possible. If people are to balance work and recovery then removing the stresses of attending appointments, negotiating taking time off with managers etc. can be extremely beneficial to the recovery process. Treatment at home (which can also include the needs of the wider family) is a powerful and personal approach.

Respect privacy and confidentiality

In all communications with employees it is vital that you reiterate that their privacy and confidentiality will be honoured and that you will keep communications open to support them throughout their recovery.

Vince Gradillas is a consultant psychiatrist at London Medical Concierge

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