Addiction: Changing the conversation at work

Author: Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

When it comes to addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs (legal/prescription, illegal or otherwise), HR policy tends to lean towards disciplinaries. But considering addiction is often a response to – or can lead to – a physical or mental health condition, “taking a disciplinary approach probably isn’t going to help,” says Dr David Griffiths, Chief Medical Officer at Teladoc Health.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), the majority of organisations have a specific policy on drugs and / or alcohol. For around half, this is focused on disciplinary procedures related to health and safety, also inappropriate behaviour.1

Far fewer provide information for employees about sources of support for drug or alcohol related problems, or guidelines for managers on how to deal with disclosure and how to signpost to support, or indeed information for employees about disclosing a problem with alcohol or drugs. 1

Just 22% of employers have referred employees with drug or alcohol problems to specialist treatment and/or rehabilitation support; support that may available via existing employee benefit providers and / or via referral to local community support services. 1

Although addiction doesn’t meet the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 20102 it might well lead to – or be a response to – a physical or mental health condition which does qualify.

There’s arguably also a diversity and inclusion (D&I) aspect to this, with regards to reducing stigmas, and ensuring open and supportive cultures.

Expert views

Talking about alcoholism, specifically, Dr Griffiths adds: “It’s an illness. There’s a genetic element to it; probably around half of alcoholism can be attributed to genetics – this doesn’t make alcoholism inevitable, but it does increase the risk. And it’s often driven by mental health, traumatic life events and low self-esteem. So, taking a disciplinary approach isn’t going to help with any of those things.”

Lucas Whitehead, Marketing and Communications Lead at national peer-to-peer support group Andy’s Man Club, echoes this, adding that a lot of men who attend their groups have physical issues that have developed into mental health issues too “because of the frustrations, you know, because of the long waiting list they’re on to get their physical problem looked at perhaps. It’s the frustration of not being able to do the things they used to be able to do.”

He explains that this can lead to people feeling “less useful” and that’s when they can start to develop certain behaviours in terms of drinking and other addictions. “It all plays into a bigger feeling of a lack of self-worth”.

Lucas adds: “The disciplinary element of it should probably be the secondary element. Line managers or businesses should probably be thinking, is there anything we can do to support this individual, perhaps to help them understand why they’re drinking; to help them understand why they’ve got this problem.

“It’s really important for line managers to just keep abreast of the support that’s available and how to make referrals. If you’ve done everything within your power to support someone and it isn’t making a difference, that’s when the potential disciplinary element can come in.”

This support might include proactive access to specialists via group income protection. For example, physiotherapy, second medical opinions, employee assistance programmes. Also, signposting to community support services such as Andy’s Man Club, as well as support for HR and line managers in the shape of manager referrals, to help them with how to approach difficult conversations.

Facts of the matter

According to latest data from the Office for National Statistics, deaths from alcohol-specific causes in the UK have increased over recent years.3 And in the face of a cost-of-living crisis, there are concerns in some quarters that this upwards trajectory might only continue.

For example, the CIPD has drawn on academic studies into the impact of the 2008 economic recession on alcohol and drug use. Studies show that during difficult economic times, certain groups may be particularly vulnerable and require additional support.1

Globally, alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent of all substance use disorders.4 And a lot of people stay in work. A US study found that more than 70% of individuals with alcohol or illicit drug use continue to maintain employment – in other words they’re “functioning” employees.5

And, as evidence from Andy’s Man Club shows, these problems can impact a very wide cross-section of society. “We see people who are on Universal Credit. Also, people who might be running Fortune 500 companies; CEOs and owners of companies of all shapes and sizes,” explains Lucas.

Triggers also vary wildly, from childhood trauma – or any kind of trauma throughout life – to physical problems, as mentioned earlier. Also, anxiety-based issues and social pressures. Dr Griffiths adds that “behaviour creep” is common; “what starts out as occasional drinks after work becomes an every night occurrence. And that’s not just younger folk. It’s really quite a common thing in middle age.”

Workplace impacts

It goes without saying that addictions and alcohol misuse can have big implications for both the individuals and their employers. This can be in terms of personal health and wellbeing, relationships, employee absence, presenteeism and inappropriate behaviour, plus impaired performance through poor decision making and reaction times, causing lost productivity, errors and accidents.

What’s important is to ensure that “looking out for each other” becomes a cultural norm, say both Dr Griffiths and Lucas.

“The majority of people who problem drink, work pretty well,” adds Dr Griffiths. “Sometimes, of course, this tips over and they become unable to work, or they get sacked because they’re not functioning anymore. So, how do you pick this up when they’re still working pretty well? Do you turn a blind eye to stuff? Or do you actually flag it up and say, you know, you’ve been hungover several times in a row, or you smell of alcohol, or simply, is everything OK? What’s going on for you? In a non-judgmental way – in an ‘I’m here to support you’ kind of way.”


This article was written following a recent webinar, entitled ‘Dangerous drinking, addiction and disability’, hosted by General UK and featuring Lucas Whitehead from Andy’s Man Club, alongside Dr David Griffiths from Teladoc Health. For free access to the recording – please email [email protected]


All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.




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