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Retain Employees by Approaching Addiction with Empathy


laflor / iStock

The last 18 months have been extremely difficult for virtually everyone, but for those dealing with addiction or living in recovery, it’s been especially challenging.

The isolation, stress and lack of a routine have made it easy to fall into some risky habits, including drinking on the job. In fact, among those who have been working from home, one in three said they’re likely to drink alcohol during work hours and over half are drinking more since the pandemic began.

While you might think this problem doesn’t affect your organization, statistics say otherwise. With nearly 11 million American workers struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s highly likely that one or more of your employees deals with addiction — either active use or in recovery.

Now, as employees begin heading back to work, their substance use habits may become even more problematic. Your instinct may be to approach the issue from a policy perspective —substance use on the job or showing up for work under the influence is against the rules and violators are subject to disciplinary action.

And while that may be true, there’s also incredible value in approaching employee substance use with an empathetic and supportive attitude. After all, your employees are your most valuable asset, and rather than just writing them off, investing in their health and well-being can help them perform at their best for your organization.

As employees return to work, here are five ways your company can ease the transition for those struggling with addiction.

  1. Don’t make alcohol the center of socializing. Of course, everyone is eager to get back together and catch up with their work family. For many, happy hours have become the default after-work social activity. However, this can be problematic for those who’ve developed a drinking problem, are trying to cut back on their drinking or are in recovery. Instead, choose more inclusive activities, like a dry mixer, an office game night, an outing to a bowling alley, attend a sporting event or picnic where alcohol isn’t the center of attention.
  2. Remind employees about substance use policies and resources. Certainly, a policy must be in place and must be enforced. Provide a quick refresher training that covers the policy and repercussions for violations, along with a reminder about any resources your company offers, such as benefits for mental health and substance use treatment, local meetings or support groups or partnerships with local treatment facilities. Make it clear that you’re not focused only on the problem but that you also want to provide solutions.
  3. Train managers to recognize signs of addiction. In order to have a strong substance use policy, managers must be able to recognize the signs and document objective and observable behaviors like chronic tardiness, absenteeism, slurred speech or a performance decline. Establish a straightforward protocol for how they should respond if they detect these behaviors and provide them with resources to support the individual if and when they need to have a tough conversation about the problem. 
  4. Embrace a culture of second chances. It can be tempting to take a hard line against substance use, especially if you don’t view addiction as the disease that it is. But implementing a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Instead, approach the situation with empathy. If you suspect an employee has an issue, rather than taking immediate disciplinary action, give them the option to seek treatment first. It could mean the difference between losing a fantastic employee and giving them a lifeline they need to recover from a disease.
  5. Normalize mental health conversations. Despite its prevalence, there’s still a great deal of stigma around mental health issues and addiction. But everyone is struggling right now and creating an environment where employees don’t have to feel ashamed or fearful to talk about their challenges is so important. Institute an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable and empowered to talk to their supervisor — or one another — about issues knowing that they won’t be ostracized or treated differently and where privacy is a priority. Normalizing the conversation could give someone who’s struggling the push they need to come forward and seek treatment.

With the extremely high competition in the talent market, now more than ever, companies need to focus on retaining valuable employees and attracting new ones to the organization. Implementing a culture of compassion, empathy and support for those with mental health and substance use issues can be a strong advantage for companies considering the prevalence of these challenges.

By investing in the health and well-being of their people first, organizations can not only retain and attract top talent but also out-perform the competition when it comes to innovation and business growth.

About the Author

 

Tim Stein is the vice president of human capital at American Addiction Centers. Now nine years in recovery after 10-plus years of addiction, he brings a unique first-hand perspective to developing strategies that support a company’s most important asset — employees. He is happy to be a resource for HR and training professionals in tackling this issue. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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