How to tackle employees’ addictions

Staff addictions don’t just damage productivity at work, they can also drive up the cost of perks such as private medical insurance, says Vicki Taylor

Case studies: Sheffield City Council, Nissan

Article in full

Imagine it is Monday morning and conversations about the weekend are in full flow. One group of employees may discuss their boozy Friday night out after work – or what they can remember of it – while someone else tells a colleague about an online poker event they participated in.

Most employers will take the view that what their employees do outside of working hours is none of their business, but there are instances where activities such as drinking alcohol, recreational drug taking and gambling can turn into an addiction. In these cases, an employee’s health and wellbeing can be seriously affected, as well as their performance at work so, arguably, their employer should take steps to help them curb their addiction. In fact, where the health and wellbeing of employees, or the public is at risk, employers have legal duties to comply with laws such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Some addictions, such as smoking, are not typically perceived to impact on performance in the same way as others. However, with the Smoke-Free (Premises and Enforcement) Regulations due to take effect in England on 1 July 2007, many best-practice employers will want to take steps to help staff kick the habit. Under the new rules, it will be a criminal offence for anyone to smoke in enclosed or partially-enclosed premises used as a workplace.

While employers are not required to give employees any assistance with giving up smoking, guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, due to be published next month, are expected to encourage employers to provide staff with time off in lieu to attend treatment, to help pay for treatment and to make information on quitting smoking readily available.

Chris Owens, head of tobacco control at the Roy Castle Lung Foundation, explains many best-practice employers already provide stop-smoking assistance, which she expects to increase when the new legislation kicks in.

“That could be by [getting] a local stop-smoking service to provide support or it might be that they have occupational health nurses who can help staff,” she says.

John Dicey, worldwide director for the stop smoking programme Allen Carr’s Easy Way, adds the company is doing more work than ever for corporate clients, which he expects to continue.

Up to 50% of the company’s corporate list is made up of large clients such as Coca-Cola, BMW, Microsoft and Virgin, while the other half comprises small and medium-sized enterprises. Dicey explains large corporates tend to pay the full costs of its courses for employees, while smaller firms tend to fund around half. The programme costs in the region of £220 plus VAT per person, but the return on investment from such a scheme can be much greater. “It is fairly well-established that a smoker costs around £2,000 more a year than a non-smoker [in] cigarette breaks, [and] absences through sickness tend to be longer and more frequent,” he says.

David Bacon, managing director at Energy Medicine, which also provides corporate stop-smoking services, agrees employers are likely to gain more from funding such a programme than it costs. “The average smoker takes something like 40 minutes in smoking breaks a day, which doesn’t sound very much, but if you multiply that by 250 working days per year that comes to one complete working month. The average smoker is only doing 11 months of work in a year and the average salary is about £24,000, so that is £2,000 in lost productivity.”

But it is not just money spent on salaries that is going up in smoke. Private medical insurance premiums are also typically higher for smokers. “It creates a very positive attitude towards employers when they run [stop smoking] programmes and I think that is the opportunity that organisations are missing out on, it is not just the financial costs,” says Dicey.

In the Government’s last General household survey in 2005 24% of adults in the UK claimed to smoke, so that’s potentially a lot of goodwill employers could cash in on.

While employers are unlikely to view smoking as having an impact on employees’ immediate everyday performance, there are other addictions that can seriously affect an individual’s ability to do their job, and risk other people’s safety.

One of the most difficult aspects of addictions like alcoholism is that individuals often become adept at hiding their problem. Tony Urwin, clinical and business development manager at Bupa Psychological Services, says: “It can be very difficult because it is often a very gradual change so you need to think back 12 months ago [to whether] there has been a change in an employee’s appearance, in the standard of their work, in the way they interact with people [or] a change in their financial circumstances.”

Employers could also call upon other staff to help identify employees with a potential problem by setting up an anonymous whistle-blowing helpline that can be called if they suspect a colleague has developed some form of addiction.

Once an issue has been identified, a line manager or the HR department will need to approach the employee. To begin with, however, staff may not have accepted that they have a problem, so employers may have to use a performance management system to predict the extent of the issue.

Kate Nolan, chief executive officer at employee assistance programme (EAP) provider CIC, explains: “When you start to see that someone is being late or falling asleep in the afternoon and it is getting worse, it is at that point that HR has an opportunity to say [to the employee] ‘it feels that things aren’t right for you’.”

Pointing an employee in the direction of an EAP can be useful because these provide a confidential telephone counselling service, often with back-up face-to-face sessions, so employees may feel more inclined to confide in this service at first rather than in their employer. They should also bear in mind many employees still perceive that there is a stigma attached to using such services. “It is still unusual for people to ring up and say ‘I have got a real drink problem’. What will happen is that the clinicians who answer the phone will be able to start to explore whether, in fact, there is an addictive trait going on underneath,” says Nowlan.

Paul Avis, marketing director at Employ-Mend, agrees: “A good EAP does what is termed as ‘unpeel the onion’, you call in with a debt problem and rather than just give you financial advice, what they do is say, ‘why are you in debt’?”

Once the EAP has got to the root of the problem, a good provider will encourage employees to go back to talk to HR, and signpost staff to other services that may be able to help them with their problem.

Some organisations will also offer an in-house or outsourced occupational health service that can help support employees overcome their addictions. Bupa’s occupational health service, for example, will help to devise a programme of support that is right for the individual and assist with structuring a return-to-work programme. The extent to which employers are prepared to offer assistance inevitably varies, but Urwin explains some have gone as far as giving staff temporary financial help while they sort themselves out. Other employers go even further, such as paying for private rehabilitation treatment.

Dr Simon Sheard, medical director at Capita Health Solutions, says: “Some very enlightened employers have access to their own psychiatric care and there are organisations that have access to alcohol treatment units.”

Employee Advisory Resource’s Employee wellbeing survey 2006 found that, of 173 employers, 70% gave employees help with alcoholism, while a further 67% helped staff with drug addictions.

However, Frank Soodeen, campaigns and press officer at Alcohol Concern, says: “It is not good enough for the occupational health service to just have a leaflet and that to be it. If they are really serious about the welfare of their staff then they need to seek out the best sources of information on how to deal with the problem.”

Therefore it is key that employers are as supportive as possible and are prepared to offer help, even when they know staff won’t always be ready to accept it. As a spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous points out, it isn’t necessarily useful for an employer to signpost its services if an employee isn’t ready to face up to their addiction.

Once staff are ready, however, there is plenty their employer can do to be supportive. “[Then] the employer can definitely help by changing shift patterns, being understanding about short periods of time off to go to meetings or making a safe environment for them to be able to talk to someone at work about how the treatment is going,” he adds.

One thing is for sure: ignoring signs of addiction could make matters worse. “It can be quite catastrophic if [an addiction] goes unchecked for very long periods,” concludes Bupa’s Urwin.

Case study: Sheffield City Council

Sheffield City Council deals with employees’ addiction problems on a case-by-case basis.

While it does not see a high number of addiction problems among its 19,000 employees, Stephen Clark, organisation development manager, safety and employee wellbeing, admits staff who are identified as suffering from addiction problems are probably just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Last year, one of the council’s services with 4,000 employees identified two addiction cases. Another section, which employs 8,000 staff, identifies an average of approximately ten cases per year. “Those will be individuals who have either stepped forward or something about their performance or behaviour [has] made managers or co-workers concerned,” explains Clark.

Once staff have been identified as having a problem, their first port of call is the council’s occupational health service which looks at how they can help them. The organisation will then typically encourage employees to seek NHS care. “Someone with a deep-seated addiction is going to require a level of care, a duration of care, and sometimes interventions that an employer just can’t access,” says Clark.

Case study: Nissan

Nissan has offered the 4,300 employees at its Sunderland plant a stop smoking service for the last two years.

David Errington, a nursing officer in the industrial and occupational health department, took a two-day course funded by Sunderland Primary Care Trust to learn how to help employees at Nissan stop smoking.

“The service we are providing is for any employee of Nissan, but they have to attend in their own time. I do a [30 minute-long] initial assessment, which is them telling me about their smoking history, and then giving them enough information for them to decide what is going to be the most effective form of stopping smoking,” he explains.

When employees have decided what method they think will be the most effective, Nissan contributes around £20 to the treatment. Staff then have a five-minute long appointment with Errington once a week to help support them long term.

Despite regular communication campaigns, only around 20 employees have so far taken advantage of the help on offer. “Over the two years it has been quite disappointing, but hopefully things will increase when the new [no smoking] legislation comes into place,” Errington adds.