How Should Businesses Tackle Addiction in the Workplace Post-Covid?

It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated addiction in the workplace. Substances that individuals relied on to cope with untreated mental health symptoms, triggered by the pandemic stressors, are now being used in workplace settings. Now more than ever, addressing employee addiction should be treated as a necessity and not an option because the price tag associated with workplace substance abuse is a hefty one.  

We spoke to a leading addiction treatment specialist, Paul Spanjar of the Providence Projects, about the ways businesses could support those struggling at work. He believes a shift in attitude towards addiction is needed to protect both staff and employees.

“Those struggling with addiction need encouragement, support, and a safe place to talk about their problems without condemnation. Addiction is an illness, and the first line of approach should be a combination of support but firm boundaries. Denial can be a huge challenge for those struggling with addiction, and by normalising these conversations, it will reduce the stigma and limit work-based performance issues in the long-term.”

Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Facts and Statistics

Substance abuse knows no boundaries and hardly takes time off. Many people battling drug or alcohol addiction are in employment, and the urge to use substances doesn’t resurface only when an addicted employee clocks out for the day. The reality is that workplace substance use is a growing problem in the UK, and every job sector is susceptible to this phenomenon.

Drug and alcohol use in workplace settings is a costly and widespread problem.  Findings show that 70% of people battling drug and alcohol dependence nationwide hold full-time job positions, suggesting that addiction has deeply penetrated most workplaces today.

These same research findings further reveal that 60% of all problematic job performances stem from workplace substance use. It’s also reported that 40% of workplace-related injuries arise from drug and alcohol use at work.

The overall cost of employee dependence issues is staggering. Businesses in the UK cumulatively lose nearly 7.3 billion every year due to productivity losses caused by alcohol dependence among workers. 

It’s also estimated that the UK loses 17 million yearly, resulting from the loss of working days among alcoholic employees who repeatedly miss work. Addiction in the workplace is a serious issue with far-reaching implications, affirming why businesses today need to step in to support the recovery needs of the vulnerable post-pandemic workforce.  

The Detrimental Effects of Addiction on Individual Employees and the Wider Workforce

An employee with problematic substance use isn’t effective in their roles. Recurrent absenteeism, sick leave requests and lateness to work may become the norm, leading to performance inconsistencies.

Even when a struggling employee is physically in attendance, they’re likely to exhibit performance inaccuracies because substance use impairs an employee’s ability to perform at full capacity. A worker who discharges physically-demanding tasks under the influence risks hurting themselves. With these injuries, their job attendance may be severely affected. 

Employees’ substance use affects the rest of the workers in different ways, eventually creating an unhealthy work environment. Coworkers may be forced to take over extra work, particularly during times when struggling employees fail to report to work or deliver unsatisfactory work. 

Workers suffering from addiction are likely to display undesirable behaviours, creating cracks in solid workplace relationships. These circumstances breed low morale among non-addicted employees, interfering with their abilities to perform at peak levels when executing normal responsibilities.

How Can We Change Attitudes Towards Addiction and Mental Health at Work?

Stigma towards individuals with dependence or mental health issues isn’t only a problem outside the workplace — it exists within work environments. In workplace settings,  stigma  often manifests as a negative attitude towards struggling employees. This attitude primarily originates from a flawed understanding of mental health and addiction.  

Recognising substance abuse and mental illness as chronic, neurological illnesses that require effective treatment to heal from will put to rest destigmatising attitudes towards workers with dependence or mental health issues.

These employees don’t have a serious character flaw, and neither are their dependence problems an outcome of bad choices. They suffer from complex but treatable medical conditions that take away their ability to function appropriately while at work.

As an employer, you are in a unique position to dismantle these negative stereotypes so that employees dealing with mental health or substance dependence feel supported and understood. Offering mental health and addiction literacy training to all employees, including leadership staff, will create a shift from negative attitudes to empathy, sensitivity, and support.

Measures Businesses Should Put in Place to Support Staff

There are several ways organisations can show support to employees battling dependence and meet their recovery needs:

  • Implementing Employee Assistance Programs

As an employer, implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that seeks to connect struggling employees with professional treatment is a great way to extend organisational support to these workers.

This support first starts with educating your supervisors and managers on the common warning signs of employee substance misuse so that it’s easier for them to spot employees who may be dealing with problematic substance use.

Oftentimes, employees battling addiction may not know where to turn to for professional help. Establishing an EAP will ensure that a manager or supervisor is armed with solutions when holding private, empathetic, one-on-one conversations with a struggling employee.

Investing in an EAP is worth every coin because employees who receive proper treatment for their substance abuse problems return to employment more mentally healthy and productive than ever. Moreover, the entire workforce benefits when employees enter treatment and recover from the addition.

  • Transforming the organisational culture

Businesses should strive to create organisational cultures that openly embrace addiction-related talks and champion for professional help-seeking behaviours. Creating a workplace culture where substance abuse and recovery conversations are shared will further weaken the stigma surrounding addiction in your workplace. It will encourage more workers suffering in silence to come forward about their struggles.

It also helps to create a culture that encourages employees in recovery (and are willing) to celebrate sobriety milestones with their coworkers. This will go a long way in strengthening your efforts to establish a recovery-supportive organisational culture and eliminate stigma.

As an employer, supporting workers in recovery also means taking potential triggers into account and responding appropriately — For instance, ensuring that non-alcoholic alternatives are included in all workplace events. Or always informing those in recovery about potential triggers associated with certain workplace events in advance so they can prepare themselves for these triggers. 

  • Investing in continuous employee education

It’s important for businesses to regularly hold training and workshops focused on creating awareness amongst employees about addiction and how it develops. These workshops will further dispel negative stereotypes regarding workers with substance abuse problems and play a key role in helping employees in denial acknowledge their addiction problem.

As a business, you should also make it your top agenda to provide your workforce with up-to-date educational materials on substance abuse and how to help affected employees. When your employees have an accurate understanding of substance dependence, including how to assist struggling coworkers, they’ll feel the need to rally behind the organisation’s efforts to support workers in need of professional help.

These awareness initiatives will send the message that your business cares about its workforce wellbeing, and motivate employees battling substance abuse to open up to coworkers about their problems. Employees will be better positioned to refer struggling colleagues to the relevant leadership personnel for further guidance.

  • Providing ongoing recovery support

As an employer, it’s worth keeping in mind that recovering from addiction is a long-term process. Employees who complete treatment will require constant support even as they resume their roles. For this reason, you need to liaise with treatment professionals to ensure there are onsite counselling and mental health support services in the workplace.

Businesses should also consider creating therapist-led workplace recovery support programs to give recovering employees an opportunity to attend recovery meetings at work after normal working hours. For remote workers in recovery, establishing web-based recovery support programs would be greatly beneficial. These opportunities will ensure workers in recovery build a solid support system at work as they pursue long-term abstinence from drugs or alcohol.

  • Introducing workplace screening programs

Organisations should adopt substance use testing and mental health screening for all employees. In the case of drug screening, employers need to approach mandated drug tests as a means to encourage as many employees as possible to enter treatment.

The ultimate goal of screening employees for drug and alcohol use shouldn’t be to weed out anyone who tests positive but to identify workers who may need professional help and refer them to early treatment.

North Carolina drug testing is a great place to start when evaluating how your drug testing program compares with other states.

Conducting substance use and mental health screening will allow you to give employees struggling with substance use problems or mental health issues a chance to receive treatment and return to work in a better functioning state.

Combating Workplace Addiction in a Post-Covid World

Workplace substance abuse affects the bottom line of businesses of every size. Its harms extend to non-addicted employees. While addressing this pervasive problem is crucial, there’s no doubt it’s a demanding endeavour. One thing is clear, though — the rewards that come with supporting affected employees are worth the effort. Businesses must prioritise paralysing the stigma tied to addiction so that struggling workers feel comfortable asking for help early enough.