Drugs, alcoholism impact workplace

In continuing with the World Mental Health Day 2017 theme of “Workplace Mental Health” it is worth shining a light on prevalence of drug dependency and alcoholism in the workplace (and working environments) and acknowledging that it is a serious issue. From an organisational perspective there are the associated costs as a consequence of absenteeism, presenteeism, productivity loss, and reputational damage, but equally important are the potentially debilitating effects it has on the health and wellbeing of employees.

Social drinking or regulated drug use may not always impact on job performance, however, when it affects the health of a staff member it then becomes a problematic workplace matter because it will invariably have a knock-on effect on performance outputs.

I have been privy to first-hand stories of men and women recovering from, or in the grips of addiction to crack, cocaine, prescription medication, cannabis or alcohol from very diverse backgrounds. Some referred to themselves as ‘Trini high society’, while others struggled to make ends meet; some with tertiary level education, and others with only a primary school leaving certificate; from Tobago to Westmoorings, surgeons to radio broadcasters, CEPEP workers and company directors – it’s evident that sadly, these issues don’t discriminate.

But despite the differences there were commonalities amongst their stories. One of which was their ability to mask their various addictions from their employers. One individual said that they have been living with addiction for over 12 years, and even though they openly accept that it impairs their judgements and productivity, neither their line manager nor senior management has ever broached the subject with them. Unfortunately, this demonstrates that somewhere along the way, vital signs are either being missed or ignored.

Last year I met Dr Naresh (not his real name) a practicing surgeon, who admitted to self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes, sex, and opiate prescription drugs during the times when he was struggling with depressive anxiety exacerbated by the psychological distress of a divorce, child custody case, and work-related stressors. He believes that his colleagues were aware of his challenges but chose to turn a blind eye and it was only when his lapse in judgement negatively impacted on the quality of patient care he was providing, that he actively sought help.

Organisations have a duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees, but unfortunately because of the cultural acceptance of alcohol consumption in this country, people are more hesitant to intervene when an employee may present with an alcohol problem.

There are times when it is obvious for all to see that employees will have reported for duty under the influence, and in some organisations it is well known that staff consume alcohol, whilst at work, but too often a blind eye is turned, as long as it is concealed from the public eye. It also has to be said that there is also a general lack of awareness of prescription medication addiction, meaning that it is too often ignored in the workplace wellbeing.

To put it in context, a recent survey found that 24% of workers have reported drinking during the workday, at least once in the past year; whilst another report has shown that 70% of Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, with Marijuana being the most commonly used, followed very closely by cocaine and prescription drug use – which is steadily increasing.

Though addiction is a disease which can be viewed as an individual problem, an organisational culture change could be very beneficial in impacting their capacity to perform work safely and efficiently. Unfortunately, many managers are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to deal with the issue of drug dependency and alcoholism appropriately. Some organisations have initiated very effective Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that address amongst other things, drug dependency and alcoholism, but in many respects those programmes leave the onus of help seeking on to the individual.

Whilst this is clearly a difficult thing to do in a working environment, we must seek to encourage and support interventions where we can (in a sympathetic and empowering manner) as we recognise that there are some, who for one reason or another are reluctant to seek help for themselves.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society.  Contact her at yr@efficacyeva.com

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