A Guide to Supporting Employees with Addiction

4th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents

Addiction shows up in many forms, including substance addiction (alcohol or drugs) and behavioural addiction (gambling, gaming, eating etc.). But whatever kind of addiction an individual is experiencing, it can seriously impact their wellbeing, as well as their performance at work. For HR professionals and managers, recognising the signs of addiction — and knowing how to support employees dealing with it — is essential. 

This guide provides insights into spotting the indicators of addiction, understanding its causes, and offering compassionate and effective support at work.

Why people experience addiction

Addiction is a complex condition that can arise from various factors. These might include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Environmental influences
  • Personal circumstances 

Addiction is most usefully understood as an unhelpful coping mechanism that often stems from a person’s attempt to cope with stress, emotions or other underlying issues. 

People may turn to addictive substances or behaviours as a means of self-medication to alleviate emotional pain or distress. Addiction can be a way to numb overwhelming feelings or temporarily escape from reality. Other factors can come into play too, including upsetting life events such as trauma, social pressures and the availability of addictive substances. All of these can contribute to the development of addiction.

Understanding addiction

Addiction is a chronic mental disorder where an individual will carry out a compulsive behaviour, even when it has adverse consequences for them. Addiction has an impact on the reward part of the brain, meaning that the person will experience persistent cravings for the substance or behaviour that they are addicted to.

People can become addicted to various substances and activities, for example:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription medication e.g. painkillers
  • Illegal drugs
  • Food, particularly comfort foods high in carbohydrates and other sugars
  • Social media
  • Gaming
  • Gambling
  • Sex

Some of these activities are more dangerous than others in terms of risk but all can have devastating effects on people’s lives and functioning. They can all end up taking over and negatively impact finances, self-worth, relationships and the ability to work effectively.

‘Misuse’, ‘addiction’ and ‘dependence’ are terms that describe different patterns and impacts of substance use. Let’s use alcohol as an example:

  • Misuse: refers to the consumption of a substance in a way that is harmful or risky, such as binge drinking or drinking in dangerous situations. Misuse doesn't necessarily lead to addiction or dependence but can increase the risk.
  • Addiction: a psychological condition characterised by a strong, often uncontrollable, desire to consume alcohol despite adverse consequences. Addiction involves a complex interplay of behavioural, cognitive and physiological factors, leading to compulsive use.
  • Dependence: a physical condition where the body has adapted to the presence of alcohol and requires it to function normally. Dependence is marked by the experience of withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is reduced or stopped.

While misuse can occur without leading to addiction or dependence, both addiction and dependence represent more severe issues. In essence, addiction encompasses a broader range of problems, including but not limited to physical dependence. When there’s a physical dependence, reduction of the substance may need to be overseen by a medical professional. This way, the individual can get support with managing the side effects as the body adjusts to having less of the substance in the system.

It's important to understand that addiction isn’t a chosen habit or ‘lack of willpower’. Instead, it is an overwhelmingly powerful biological and psychological force in a person’s life. To overcome this challenge, individuals struggling with addiction need support, understanding and access to appropriate treatment and therapy. 

Recognising signs of addiction

Identifying signs of addiction in the workplace can be challenging, as individuals might conceal their struggles due to fear of stigma or consequences. Some people can also have “high-functioning” addictions, meaning that they might be able to perform their role well in many respects, but are still dealing with their addiction in private. Yet even those with a high-functioning addiction will still be dealing with the mental, emotional, social, physical and financial effects of their dependency. 

Some common indicators of addiction in an employee include:

  • Changes in behaviour: erratic behaviour, mood swings or sudden shifts in personality.
  • Decline in performance: decreased productivity, frequent absences or missed deadlines.
  • Physical symptoms: noticeable changes in appearance, hygiene or physical health.
  • Financial difficulties: borrowing money from colleagues, unexplained financial troubles or requests for salary advances.
  • Social withdrawal: isolation from colleagues, reluctance to participate in team activities or avoiding social interactions.
  • Secretive behaviour: attempts to conceal activities or disappearing from the workplace for periods of time without explanation.

Bear in mind that most people with addictions experience deep shame about their condition. So if you observe any of these behaviours in a team member, it is important to open up a conversation with compassion, empathy and discretion — particularly as many of these signs could also be caused by other issues. It’s also crucial to offer reassurances of confidentiality and offer support without judgement. Or 7 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work is a useful guide.

However, it is also important to be clear about your policies and workplace boundaries regarding certain behaviours (particularly if they’re illegal and/or put the individual or those they work with at risk). In some cases, these may need to be reported to the police (for example theft or selling drugs). Also, if an individual attends work under the influence of drugs or alcohol then there will need to be a policy about what happens, for example, that they are sent home.

What can cause addiction?

Various factors can contribute to the development of addiction, both within and without the workplace. Addictions are often associated with low self-worth, finding emotions unbearable to tolerate, high levels of anxiety and sometimes complex trauma.

Some common workplace-related factors include:

  • Stressful working environments: high-pressure work environments, tight deadlines and excessive workload. This increases the likelihood of turning to addictive substances or behaviours as coping mechanisms.
  • Work-related trauma: exposure to traumatic events or occupational hazards can trigger psychological distress, leading individuals to seek relief through addictive behaviours.
  • Work-life imbalance: struggling to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life can contribute to feelings of overwhelm and dissatisfaction. This might cause a person to seek solace in addictive behaviours. 
  • Peer influence: social dynamics within the workplace — for instance, regular socialising that involves drinking — can aggravate addictive tendencies.
  • Accessibility of addictive substances: easy access to alcohol, prescription medications or other addictive substances at work can increase the risk of substance abuse among employees.

Supporting employees with addiction

Supporting employees with addiction requires a multi-faceted approach. Employers and HR managers can create a supportive environment by:

  • Fostering open communication: encouraging a culture of openness and trust where employees feel comfortable discussing their challenges with trusted team members.
  • Thinking about language: avoiding terms that increase stigma, such as ‘alcohol abuse’, ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict’. It may be more useful to use less shaming terms such as ‘person with an addiction’.
  • Exploring workplace factors: being open to hearing if there are situations at work or aspects of the role that are causing stress and acting as triggers to the addictive behaviour. If these are known about, solutions can be explored.
  • Providing access to counselling and therapy: offering access to support services, such as EAPs and confidential therapy for employees.
  • Creating supportive workplace policies: developing clear policies and procedures related to addiction. These will need to include firm but kind boundaries. This will equip managers and the HR team with the knowledge of how best to help.
  • Education on addiction: providing training and awareness programmes on addiction, mental health and general wellbeing.
  • Mental health resources: having support structures and information available to help employees develop healthy ways of coping with stress or difficult emotions.
  • Offering flexibility: accommodating employees' needs for flexible work arrangements, time off for treatment or recovery and access to support groups or therapy sessions.

Reasonable adjustments for employees with addiction

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities, including addiction. These adjustments aim to remove barriers to work and ensure that individuals can perform their roles effectively. Some examples of reasonable adjustments for employees with addiction might include:

  • Flexible working arrangements: allowing for modified work schedules, remote work options or reduced hours to accommodate treatment or recovery needs.
  • Reviewing roles: if travelling for work is a risk factor—or if entertaining clients makes it difficult for an individual to continue working towards abstinence—then workplaces could explore what changes could be made. This could simply be on a short-term basis while the individual seeks additional support.
  • Access to treatment resources: facilitating access to counselling, therapy or addiction support groups, either through EAPs or by providing information on external services.
  • Leadership training and awareness: providing training to managers and the HR team on how to support employees with addiction. This can include recognising signs, offering assistance and fostering a supportive environment. It can also include training in emotional intelligence for leaders
  • Confidentiality and privacy: respecting employees' privacy and confidentiality regarding their addiction and treatment journey. This ensures that individuals will feel more able to seek and accept support, without fearing stigma, job loss or other repercussions. 

Therapeutic interventions

Individuals struggling with addiction may benefit from various therapeutic interventions. Lumo therapists offer a range of approaches proven to help with addiction, including: 

  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): helps individuals process traumatic experiences. This can be effective as trauma can be a contributing factor in addiction. 
  • Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT): helps individuals develop alternative methods for managing difficult emotions so they don’t need to rely on unhelpful means, such as addictive behaviours
  • Motivational Interviewing: engages individuals in a supportive and non-judgemental conversation that enhances their motivation and readiness to change their harmful behaviours.
  • Schema Therapy: explores how unmet needs can create mental wellbeing issues, including addiction. This approach also equips individuals with the tools for meeting those needs, which can reduce addictive behaviours. 
  • Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT): helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with addiction. This approach also promotes positive change and better coping skills.
  • Mindfulness Therapy: promotes awareness, self-compassion and stress reduction, which can support recovery and also help to prevent relapses. 

Supporting employees with addiction is a multifaceted responsibility that requires empathy, understanding and proactive intervention. By recognising the signs of addiction, addressing contributing factors and developing supportive workplace practices, employers and managers can create a safe space for people to move forward into recovery. 

It’s important to remember that individuals struggling with addiction should never be made to feel judged or stigmatised. Instead, they should be offered the support and resources that they need to heal, while holding kind boundaries that limit the harm they may be doing to themselves, those around them and the organisation. In supporting individuals through addiction, employers can create a more forward-thinking, compassionate and inclusive working environment where everyone can thrive. 

A Guide to Supporting Employees with Addiction
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