The last taboo: Addressing addiction and recovery in workplace wellbeing

African man counselor therapist coach psychologist speak at group counseling therapy session concept encourage support patients in addiction talk share problem sit in circle in rehab, close up view

As a health and social care professional with a career spanning 25 years, including nine years in the workplace wellbeing sector, I have witnessed the evolution of workplace wellbeing initiatives firsthand.

Despite significant progress, there remains a glaring, critical gap that Wellbeing Leads must address to create truly inclusive and supportive environments. Insights from our ‘Wellbeing Strategy Maturity Quiz’ reveal this gap as the most pressing issue in current wellbeing strategies: tackling addiction and recovery support in the workplace.

My awareness of this gap dates back five years when we were developing Our Mind’s Work’s mental health education workshops. One of our offerings was a Drug and Alcohol Awareness workshop, leveraging my six years of experience in drug and alcohol services. However, the demand was non-existent, and we soon removed it from our Membership Programme.

Fast forward to today, I find myself in a dramatically different position. I am now a professional woman in recovery from a three-year addiction. My personal journey has ignited a passion and urgency to use my experience and influence in the world of workplace wellbeing to advocate for recovery-friendly workplace practices. This mission is deeply personal, and here’s why.

The overlooked crisis: addiction in the workplace

Despite the increased focus on mental health within workplace wellbeing strategies, support for addiction recovery is often overlooked. Addiction remains one of the last taboos in the workplace, with only 6% of respondents to our Wellbeing Strategy Maturity Quiz reporting recovery-friendly practices as part of their wellbeing strategy.

The stigma and shame surrounding addiction in the workplace is pervasive and destructive. It’s time to confront this issue head-on, offering compassion, resources, and a supportive culture for colleagues who may be struggling with addiction.

In the UK, 70% of people with substance use problems are employed, with alcohol alone costing over £7 billion in lost productivity annually. Workplace stress increases alcohol use for 27% of employees, and many workplace cultures inadvertently promote drinking. Employed individuals are more likely to drink heavily than those unemployed, with the highest rates in managerial and professional occupations, and industry-wide issues in Hospitality and Construction.

Addiction and poor mental health are intrinsically linked, with over 70% of people entering treatment for addiction reporting mental health problems. It’s no surprise that addiction is also linked to financial problems and poor physical health for many.

According to the CIPD Drug and Alcohol Misuse Survey, 77% of organisations have drug and alcohol policies, but only 33% provide information on support resources. Furthermore, just 30% offer guidelines for managers on handling disclosures, and a mere 27% provide information to employees about disclosing substance-related problems. These statistics emphasise the prevalence of problematic drug and alcohol use and highlight the inadequacy of current workplace wellbeing agendas in addressing these issues.

The benefits of recovery friendly workplaces

By integrating recovery-friendly practices into wellbeing strategies, Wellbeing Leads can:

  • Improve Employee Wellbeing – Supporting employees through recovery can lead to better mental and physical health outcomes.
  • Enhance Productivity – Employees who receive adequate support are more likely to remain engaged and productive.
  • Reduce Turnover – A supportive environment can improve employee retention, increase loyalty and attract top talent.
  • Foster a Positive Culture – Promoting a culture of acceptance and support can enhance overall workplace morale.

Creating recovery friendly workplaces

A Recovery Friendly Workplace supports employees recovering from addiction by providing compassion, resources, training, policies, and practices that promote their health and wellbeing and treat people with dignity and respect.

Recovery is contagious so having open conversations, offering access to treatment and recovery coaching while creating a stigma-free and psychologically safe culture and implementing supportive policies and practices, employers can foster a philosophy of acceptance and support for colleagues in recovery or struggling with addiction.

The Role of HR Professionals and Wellbeing Leads

HR professionals and Wellbeing Leads play a pivotal role in shaping the wellbeing strategies of their organisations. By addressing addiction and recovery, they can significantly enhance workplace health and productivity. Here are some actionable steps HR can take to foster recovery-friendly workplaces:

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  • Promote a stigma-free culture

Creating an environment where employees feel safe to disclose their struggles without fear of judgment or reprisal is crucial. Normalise conversations about addiction, promote recovery, and ensure policies reflect a supportive stance. Bring in lived experience speakers to inspire hope and enlist a supportive senior leader to sponsor your recovery-friendly strategy.

  • Implement supportive policies

Embed existing policies to specifically address addiction and recovery to provide consistent and compassionate support. This includes flexible working arrangements, leave policies for treatment, and ongoing support groups. Embed recovery-friendly practices into your mental health and wellbeing strategy.

  • Provide access to education and resources

Offer education and support resources, including multiple pathways to recovery, peer support groups, recovery coaching, and mental health services. Making these resources easily accessible and well-publicised can encourage employees to seek help.

  • Enhance manager training on addiction awareness

Train managers to recognise signs of addiction and approach struggling employees sensitively. Provide guidelines for handling disclosures and continuous education on addiction. Training should include preventing work-related stress, active listening, non-judgmental listening, and leading with empathy and compassion.

In conclusion, incorporating robust addiction recovery practices into workplace wellbeing strategies is not just a moral imperative, it’s strategic. HR professionals are uniquely positioned to lead this change, creating healthier, more supportive workplaces. Addressing addiction openly and supportively helps employees achieve recovery, improving overall workplace health and productivity.

About the author:

Emily Pearson is Founder and managing director of workplace wellbeing training and consultancy Our Mind’s Work. She has over 25 years of experience working in the health and social care sector and nine years in the workplace mental health and wellbeing field, supporting HR and Wellbeing Leads across the globe to develop and deliver impactful mental health and wellbeing strategies. To see how your organisation measures up and to identify areas for improvement, you can take Emily’s Wellbeing Strategy Maturity Quiz here.


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