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Business leaders self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health problems

UK business leaders are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms during the pandemic.

According to new research from health insurer Bupa Global, 78% of business leaders have experienced fatigue, a lack of motivation, mood swings and disturbed sleep this year.

To cope with these symptoms 38% have turned to recreational and over the counter drugs or alcohol, 34% have relied on shopping or spending and 32% admitted to overexercising.

According to the report, leadership pressures and ongoing stigma about mental health in the workplace could be partly responsible for their tendency to self-medicate.

Though there has been widespread awareness about the need to support mental wellbeing of employees during the pandemic, two in five (42%) board level executives still said they believe it would damage their reputation if they admitted they were struggling.

Thirty-nine per cent also said they wouldn’t be able to seek help for fear that it would impact their social standing within the organisation.

Due to the number of people relying on business leaders Luke James, medical director at Bupa Global, said it is unsurprising that they have felt under pressure to hide their own issues rather than facing them head on.

He said: “With complex networks of colleagues, investors, affiliates as well as their own families to consider, it’s no surprise that many have felt they must ‘keep calm and carry on’, rather than facing up to mental health issues.”

Part of the concern is that many healthier support mechanisms, such as seeing friends and family or taking holidays, have been diminished this year making self-medicating a more-accessible, quick-fix solution.

Though it can be difficult to spot signs of self-medicating, the report said that indicators can include a change in a person’s appearance or personal habits, for example weight fluctuation, losing interest in appearance or withdrawing from social interactions.

In the case of alcohol dependency the report said HR should also be aware of restricting patterns in which people stick only to certain drinks, or a worsening of symptoms relating to anxiety or depression.

Speaking to HR magazine, James said that the first step HR teams can take is to work on helping employees identify the triggers for their behaviour. He advised: "HR teams might want to encourage those who are struggling to write a list of their concerns or worries. This can help those affected recognise and avoid certain situations or people.

"HR professionals may also want to look at how people are managing their workloads. Those who are spread too thinly at work or who are finding that work consistently creeps into their home lives may find themselves at breaking point."

Jeff Phipps, managing director of ADP UK, advised HR leaders to be open minded and not to make assumptions if they are to support mental health issues in the workplace.

He told HR magazine: “Get your most senior people to show they care and that “It’s OK to not be OK”. We can have good practices, such as mental health awareness training, but the first step is to create an atmosphere of trust where people can come forward and get the support they need.”

Phipps said he had been astounded and humbled by the way some ADP employees have been able to open up in the past but, he added: “These have only been shared – and can only be shared – when employees trust the organisation not to judge, but to listen.”

Linda Mountford, Northern Europe commercial HR director of Thai Union Europe, also told HR magazine that it's important people leaders take steps to break down the stigma attached to mental health.

She said: "This can be done by raising the profile of mental wellbeing more generally with employees, identifying and tackling the common causes of specific mental health problems that may exist within your particular workplace, and finally, provide support for employees who may be experiencing mental health problems, whether in a personal or professional capacity.

"The key to achieving this is implementing a regular communications routine to keep staff engaged, as well as encouraging an even work/life balance."