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How to spot addiction in the workplace

Many employees with addictions are still high-functioning and valuable contributors to their workplace

Most addicts, especially high-functioning addicts or individuals who are gainfully employed with a seemingly normal family and social life, are in denial around the depth of their drug or alcohol use. But there are usually key signs and symptoms that may indicate substance abuse:

  • Poor concentration
  • Inconsistent work quality
  • Increase in sick days and absenteeism
  • Lowered productivity
  • Needless risk-taking and extreme behaviour
  • Errors in judgement and careless mistakes.

These signs can usually be picked up by other colleagues and can be an indication that something is occurring. It is very important to have an open channel around transparency and support within the team, which can be vital to heading off a crisis at the pass.

The important thing for employers to realise is that addictions can be managed, and valuable employees can be restored to their full health and potential. Successfully tackling alcohol/drug misuse can benefit both your business and your employees, and treatment is a better solution than recruitment. Many employees are still high-functioning and valuable contributors to their workplace, and organisations are realising this and finding it more cost-effective to rehabilitate than to dismiss and hire a replacement.

Ensure that you are clear about the support the individual can expect from the organisation should they make a disclosure. Also be clear about workplace consequences should they not seek support, such as the health and safety risk to themselves and others, and the organisation’s legal perspective on such matters.

Provide a consistent framework for managers that is fairly balanced between the employee’s needs and those of the organisation. Acknowledge that the employee and the employer have an important part to play in optimising all staff’s health and wellbeing. Set out a clear and concise plan for how both can contribute to this in an achievable way for the individual being supported, but also for the manager or the person on the frontline who is supporting the struggling member of staff.

  • Remember your role is not to give diagnosis; in fact it is unethical for you to do so if you are in a managerial relationship with your employee.
  • In your discussions of work stay focused on performance objectives and do not open discussions of character or personality. Focus on their behaviour and performance in their work role.
  • Listening is different from counselling, and listening is an essential skill for maintaining a positive relationship. However, steer clear from offering advice about their personal life.
  • You yourself may need support when managing employees with addiction or other personal issues. Be sure to seek confidential and appropriate support for yourself.

Having a list of resources available, both within and outside of your organisation, can help employees make decisions about where to seek assistance. Provide details of appropriate support services that are not linked to the workplace such as AA and external treatment providers.

Staff often don’t want to use the employee assistance programmes or similar as they think it will get fed back to their organisation. Therefore it is important that HR selects external support services that offer client anonymity and privacy. Also look for a treatment provider that offers ongoing support and aftercare for when the employee returns to work.

Glyn Smithson is UK clinical partnership manager for rehabilitation facility The Cabin