The number of workers seeking treatment for addictions rose dramatically as a result of the pandemic, but experts warn that the worst is yet to come and employers need to be ready for the fallout.
Matt Smith, head of external affairs at Betknowmore, who himself is in recovery from a gambling and alcohol disorder, for example, reports that his charity received more referrals in the month of May 2022 than it had had in the previous six months combined. He puts this down to addictions “taking a bit of time to get through the wash”. “So, if you started a gambling addiction in early 2020, say, it might only be now that it’s coming to the fore.”
Addiction risks post-pandemic
As we emerge from the pandemic, too, there are a few environmental factors which could drive addictive behaviour or contribute towards relapse. Feelings of disconnection and vulnerability are both linked to addiction, with the substance – whether that be drugs, alcohol, food, shopping or even a phone – offering an escape from these unpleasant feelings.
Working from home and the uncertainty of life right now, from the war in Ukraine to the cost of living crisis, increase the risk of disconnection and vulnerability. Meanwhile, levels of loneliness – the ultimate feeling of disconnection – are currently reaching record highs. If employers don’t pre-empt this potential fallout, then the impact on, not only productivity and profitability, but also morale and workforce wellbeing could be significant.
As Smith points out, it’s not just the employee dealing with the addiction that it adversely affects, either. The impact can be widespread: “For every one person who has issues with gambling, they’re probably affecting around 15 to 20 people around them. That could be family, friends, work colleagues. And that could be in any industry. I’ve met many different people in my job from commercial managers to doctors to foremen on construction sites, to people like me who worked in media and broadcast. The stereotype of an addict being the homeless man on a bench covered in pee just doesn’t ring true.”
“Addiction is multi-layered and can happen to anyone,” says Andrea Woodside, training and wellbeing practitioner at The Retail Trust. “Even those who enjoy robust social networks.”
Stereotypes still alive and kicking
Problem is, stereotypes are still very much alive and kicking in the corporate world (where did your mind honestly go when you first read the word ‘addict’ in this article?). This automatic negative bias, often fed by images in popular culture, gets in the way of solution finding. It can even make companies question what the benefit is to them of supporting ‘an addict’, when addictive behaviour is so notoriously difficult for a third party – let alone an employer – to alleviate.
As Chevy Rough, who has also struggled with drug addiction at work and is now health and wellbeing lead for PGL Travel says, the brutal commercial question here is: what’s in it for you, the company?
“What’s in it for you first is doing the right thing. Not turning your back on someone who needs help. This is about what your values are as a business.”
Then he points out another brutal commercial reality:
“If someone is in your business and they already have an addiction, you can’t just fire them. You’re already in it with that human. You’re going to expend energy either way [supporting them or working to get rid of them]. It all depends on context; the job, the environment, how long they’ve been working there.”
What supporting those affected can do for you
Rough argues it’s much better to support them because you will reap the rewards later. His view is that for many addicts – and this was the case with him – their “curse” is also their “gift”, meaning that many people who struggle with addictions are hugely talented, have many diverse skills and give 100%. They also often acquire high levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness through their recovery journey.
Moreover, Rough believes his experiences of addiction have actually “shaped who I am”, and strengthened his ability at work, in all manner of tasks from managing internal relationships to driving stakeholders to public speaking. “People who have got through addictions have often got so much going for them. If you support them, you get their trust and loyalty and a hell of a lot of skill sets. It’s a gift in so many ways. I know some amazing people who are such great humans because of what they’ve been through.”
The best thing employers can do is create a “container” in which employees feel safe enough to start facing their addiction, whose roots often run deep, says Rough, who traces his back to childhood abandonment.
The tricky elephant-in-the-article, though, is how exactly employers can effectively support people struggling with addiction when, often, they don’t want, or aren’t ready, to be helped. Even addiction therapist Sarah Cox, who works with A-listers, to royalty to CEOs, confirms it’s difficult for experts who have received huge amounts of training in the area:
“Mostly people’s lives need to hit rock bottom before they will do anything about it. I would never confront anyone directly about addiction unless they asked me. However, I might say things like ‘are you OK? I can see that you are spending all your spare time on social media (being busy, in the pub, shopping or gambling etc) and I am a little concerned that you might not be OK? How are you feeling at the moment?’ Watching people sink into addiction is a painful experience but it is essential to know that until someone is ready to change, there is nothing you can do about it.”
Hitting rock bottom
Both Smith and Rough say they hit rock bottom and took years to recover properly. Neither had a stable employer supporting them through addiction; Smith’s former employer TalkSPORT did everything possible to keep him but it became untenable, and Rough purposely changed jobs often.
However, rather than at these extremes where Rough and Smith’s experiences lie, it’s in the middle ground of addiction where employers can arguably benefit employees most. For instance, there’s been a huge increase in awareness around ‘gray area drinking’, which is when someone experiences a drinking problem and might find themselves using alcohol in excess or emotional ways, but doesn’t necessarily have a severe alcohol use disorder.
Smith gives the example of a woman who feels she ‘has’ to have a glass of wine at 6 ‘o’ clock every evening and if she doesn’t she becomes desperate and changes her behaviour to satisfy the craving. This illustrates that addiction isn’t so much characterised by the substance or the amount but more the “obsession of the mind”, he explains.
It’s these gray-area ‘addicts’ whose lives employers can positively effect by identifying potential harmful behaviour early and supporting employees at pinch points, to help prevent them slipping along the addiction spectrum. One way to do this is by normalising the conversation around addiction and showing, through storytelling, that it can happen to anyone.
Talking about phone addiction, in particular, is a great way to normalise the conversation and bring to light what addictive behaviour can look and feel like, in a way that many people can relate to. As it can be a sensitive conversation to start, another possibility is bringing experts in to inform your knowledge. Betknowmore has identified this need and is launching a programme called ‘WorkSafe’ in autumn; this is a training programme designed for HR professionals giving training on spotting the signs of problem gambling in the workplace.
As Rough says, companies are playing a growing role in society in supporting workers as they navigate life’s challenges and this is only going to increase, given the precarious times we are facing. He believes they can, and should, go beyond a substance misuse policy in order to stay in line with health and safety law, as well as insurance requirements.
“Companies can create psychologically safe spaces where people feel they can share without being penalised,” he says. “We [wellbeing professionals] can learn to embrace our colleagues as humans and create environments where it’s OK for us all to be ourselves, where we can help people thrive. Companies have to be in that game now. They have no choice.”
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About the author
Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.
She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.
When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.