It’s incredibly difficult to know what to do or say when trying to be helpful to a colleague struggling with an addiction. Even within the sector, amongst professionals with expertise in this field, there is disagreement. So, following on from our other pieces honing in on addiction, as we know our readers like practical information, we’ve put together some steps based on conversations with experts and those with lived experienced of addiction at work.
1. Watch your language
The word ‘addict’ has negative connotations and can reinforce stereotypes, which is why companies like Betknowmore advocate not using it when talking to your workforce. It suggests saying ‘individuals who have been affected by gambling harm’. Alternatives could also be ‘individuals who are recovering from an alcohol / gambling use discover’ or ‘struggling with addiction’.
2. Regular check-ins
Regularly checking in with your workforce to see how they are feeling is good practice but, with regard to addiction, it can be a good way to identify potential problems early.
Make sure the check-in goes beyond an email asking if someone is OK with an emoji smiley face and incorporates a face to face element, where people know they have time and space to talk. Ensure employees know there are people beyond their line manager or HR director that they can talk to – ideally someone in a neutral position, like in a wellbeing champion role. And if you don’t have such a person, consider appointing one.
It can be harder to pick up on changes if you are working remotely so, if your workforce predominantly works from home, consider organising regular extended social/wellbeing sessions online.
3. Be observant
It’s possible to spot the early signs of addiction if you are vigilant. A drop in personal hygiene can be a tell-tale sign, as can acting differently from normal behaviour.
4. Don’t be deterred by defensiveness
It can be incredibly difficult to start a conversation with someone suffering from addiction about how they really are. But bear in mind that having these conversations with them could plant a seed in their minds and potentially even be life saving. So don’t be put off if someone reacts defensively; according to individuals in recovery who are now open about their addictions, defensiveness can commonly be an indicator that something is wrong.
If you’re feeling confident enough, experts suggest saying something like: “I feel like you’re being a little bit defensive; can we explore this a bit more? Maybe we can go and grab a coffee together outside the office?”
It’s important that men in particular feel they have a safe, private space in which they can let down their guard and show vulnerability. The more informal you can make the conversation, too, the better. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is often a skill that needs to be learnt and one which men especially are socially conditioned against.
5. Avoid shaming at all costs
It sounds obvious but it can be done unconsciously in our culture. People struggling with addictions often talk about how ashamed they feel and how this fuels further addictive behaviour.
What people suffering need more than anything is empathy, compassion and a non-judgmental listening ear. They often want to be told that it’s OK to be where they are and they have support in helping them through. As investigative journalist and addiction author Johann Hari says, connection is the opposite of addiction.
6. Don’t expect instant results
Addiction and recovery are often long, hard roads with many twists, turns and bumps along the way. Bear in mind that one conversation will probably not garner instant results but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t made a positive impact – now or in the future. There can be a considerable lag time between the personal recognition that there’s a problem to finding the readiness to do something about it.
A good way to think of these important conversations is like seeds being planted – it’s worthwhile planting them, and nurturing them over time, because they will flower later if you do.
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7. Tell stories of people affected by addiction
Stories are more powerful than statistics. If you have anyone in your organisation who has been through addiction and recovery and is prepared to speak about their experiences, this can be a valuable way to start/continue the conversation. But do consider that they will need to have support when speaking out as the experience can be unsettling for them.
8. Get expert help
This is a sensitive topic. Consider bringing in experts, particularly those with lived experience, who can help you start the conversation. Betknowmore, for example, is launching a training course aimed at HR professionals in autumn 2022.
Thank you to Matt Smith, head of external affairs at Betknowmore, and Chevy Rough, health and wellbeing lead at PGL Travel, who informed many of these tips as part of researching this piece about the rise in addictions at work post pandemic. If you would like to contribute to this conversation and share your story, please get in touch. You can email the author at [email protected]
If you, or someone you know, needs help with addiction and dependency, here are some useful contacts compiled by mental health charity in England and Wales, Mind.
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