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Addiction recovery in UK workplaces: How to shift the narrative

Employers should encourage candidates to share their addiction recovery story when applying for a job, argues Delamere's founder

Are UK employers ready to adopt a US-style approach to supporting people in addiction and recovery?

In the US, addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs is considered to be a disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, later, in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The latter protects people who are presently addicted to, or in recovery from, alcohol, and those in recovery for illicit drug use from being discriminated against at every stage of their employment. This means from application and interview, to working in the office.

For three decades, employers in the US have played an essential and active role in supporting prospective and existing employees who have a history of addiction. When I spent some time in the country, I saw first-hand how differently addiction and recovery was treated, considered, and spoken about compared with in the UK, both in private rehabilitation centres and in the workplace.

Read more: HR guide to dealing with workplace substance abuse

This difference in perspective and approach to addiction recovery is what inspired me to open my own clinic in Cheshire, where we build on the position held in the US. You need to treat the whole person rather than just the symptom if you want them to thrive in recovery, and that first step to open up about your addiction should be celebrated.

It is therefore unsurprising that Americans feel comfortable sharing that they are in addiction recovery during the recruitment process, and by noting this on their CV. This is welcomed and encouraged by employers, particularly for those that operate ‘recovery-ready workplaces’.

Company referrals, for example, are the most common method in America for someone struggling with addiction to go to rehab and/or get professional help for their recovery.

Read more: Addictive behaviour in the workplace: how prepared are you?

In these cases, the employer is acting as an ally that takes action in supporting the wellbeing of an employee.

Wellbeing expert and Delamere’s advisory board member Professor Sir Cary Cooper once told me that, while he would love to see this reform introduced and encouraged by UK employers, he does not think our country is ready for this yet.

Cooper thinks that this goes for both the candidate and the employer.

During the recruitment process, many candidates find it hard enough to talk about topics like salary and mental health, let alone addiction, for fear that this will negatively impact their chances of getting the job. And the majority of companies will likely not respond positively to this change, according to Cooper.

This is partly due to the stigma attached to addiction in this country, which needs to be addressed. While there has been progress in this area in recent years, there is still a lack of understanding around what addiction means for someone, and where it stems from.

Like in the US, the workplace is on the frontline when it comes to shifting this narrative. Work is where thousands of people still suffer in silence, which no doubt contributes to the mental health crisis currently going on in UK workplaces.

Read more: Majority of employers want to offer addiction support

I think HR leaders and recruiters can shift the narrative when recruiting new talent and keeping talent from leaving their workplace.

When hiring new talent, employers should encourage candidates to share their addiction recovery story when applying for a job, and to proactively discuss this during the interview process, should they want to.

For the candidate, this reform will not only contribute positively to their recovery but it will also encourage the candidate to apply for the job in the first place. Not only that, you will get a candidate who feels comfortable to be their authentic self, giving them the best chance to get the job in the first place.

For the employer, this will demonstrate its commitment to provide a truly inclusive recruitment process and company culture. The reform will likely encourage applicants who have a history of addiction that may have the ideal skills and experience for the role, rather than close itself off from talent during a talent shortage crisis. For those who may still apply for the job and suffer in silence in the workplace, this can result in unaddressed issues that HR leaders have to handle further down the line, and with little knowledge of.

This is important because the UK has an addiction crisis that is on the rise since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest ONS figures show that there are a growing number of adults being treated for drug and alcohol misuse. In recent years, we are seeing more people being treated for different types of behavioural addictions such as shopping, social media and porn, which are more difficult to spot.

Research from Hygiene UK found that 60% of poor performance in the workplace is related to substance abuse. There is a serious and immediate need to shift the narrative around addiction and recovery, starting with the workplace.

Professor David Best from Leeds Trinity University said that addiction recovery “is not a passive state”. He refers to the mental fortitude, determination, accountability, self-awareness and other positive traits not always associated with recovery, all which should be celebrated and supported by HR leaders and recruiters across the UK.

By Martin Preston, founder and CEO of private addiction treatment clinic, Delamere