Employee Experience

Breaking the stigma: a new outlook on managing addiction at work

6 Mins read

The global pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis have had far-reaching impacts, including a rise in substance misuse and abuse rates. As the stresses and uncertainties of these challenging times take their toll, employees are increasingly turning to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. This way, leading to addiction and related issues in the workplace. 60% of employers report issues with alcohol misuse, and 27% report drug misuse as a problem among their workforce.

Despite these alarming statistics, the traditional approach to managing addiction at work has often been stigmatising and punitive. It has mainly focused on discipline or dismissal rather than providing compassionate support and evidence-based interventions. This outdated approach not only fails to address the underlying causes of addiction but also perpetuates discrimination and marginalisation of employees struggling with it. What is needed is a new outlook on managing addiction at work, one that prioritises understanding, empathy, and proactive interventions. 

Socio-Economic Struggles and Substance Misuse

The global pandemic, along with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, has resulted in profound transformations in the lifestyles and work patterns of people across the world. These substantial changes have also influenced the prevalence of substance abuse, as individuals seek solace or relief from stress and uncertainty by resorting to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. Indeed, research has shown that ‘Stress is a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and in addiction relapse vulnerability.’

A report from Drinkaware published on 15 May 2020 found that a third (36%) of furloughed workers stated that they were drinking more since lockdown began, compared with 26% of those working from home and 24% of the general UK population. Even though the pandemic and lockdown measures have passed, it is likely that some individuals may have continued with their increased drinking habits, with the pandemic acting as a trigger for addiction that they may still be grappling with.

Furthermore, the cost-of-living crisis is also having a significant impact on addiction rates. The UK Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT) has reported a significant increase in calls to their Runcorn Oasis centre in recent months, with staff attributing the rise to the cost-of-living crisis. Moreover, as stated by a YouGov poll commissioned by addiction charity The Forward Trust, nearly one third (32%) of adults interviewed reported relapsing back into addiction or knowing someone who had. The majority of those reporting relapse identified the cost-of-living crisis as the most significant factor affecting anxiety, stress, and trauma levels (61%).

These statistics serve as a stark reminder of the significant and challenging impact of recent socio-economic hardship on substance abuse rates, with a noticeable rise in alcohol and drug misuse among employees. The stress, uncertainty, and financial strain brought about by the global pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have led to increased substance abuse as individuals cope with these challenging circumstances. This underscores the urgent need for a proactive and compassionate approach from organisations to address the rising levels of addiction at work and support employees in need.

Why Social Issues Are Workplace Issues

Addiction and substance abuse not only impact individuals on a personal level but also have significant consequences in the workplace. Research indicates that alcohol and drug abuse costs UK employers an estimated £7.3 billion each year, with lost productivity accounting for £6.4 billion of this figure. Employees struggling with addiction may experience an impacted performance at work, leading to increased presenteeism.

Studies have shown that employees grappling with addiction issues tend to be absent from work for an extended duration, averaging two to three weeks longer per year compared to their colleagues. This prolonged absence can result in several detrimental outcomes for employers, including heightened costs, loss of efficiency, and increased workload for other employees.

Furthermore, addiction can create a toxic work environment that impacts employee morale and team dynamics. The behaviours commonly associated with addiction, such as mood swings, unpredictable conduct, and strained relationships with colleagues, can sow seeds of discord and negativity in the work atmosphere. This can manifest in reduced collaboration among team members, heightened conflicts, and an overall decrease in job satisfaction among employees. The impact of addiction on the work environment can be far-reaching and may necessitate intervention and support for managing addiction to restore a healthy and productive workplace culture.

Moreover, addiction can have serious legal implications for organisations. Issues related to addiction, such as workplace accidents, injuries, or lawsuits, can result in costly legal battles and damages. Additionally, replacement costs for employees who leave the organisation due to addiction-related issues can strain the financial resources of a workplace.

Habitual substance abuse is not an isolated personal issue but has significant implications in the workplace. The financial costs associated with lost productivity, absenteeism, legal issues, and employee turnover expenses highlight the importance of recognising addiction as a workplace problem. 

Missing the Mark: Workplace Addiction Mismanagement

Despite the significant impact of addiction on the workplace, the current approach in managing addiction often falls short in effectively addressing the issue. Employers tend to resort to surface-level treatment, implementing punitive measures such as disciplinary actions or termination to try and manage the problem. However, this approach fails to address the underlying causes of addiction, such as mental health issues or environmental stressors, and can even exacerbate the problem by causing additional stress and shame for the employee.

Moreover, the punitive approach to managing addiction can reinforce the stigma surrounding addiction and discourage employees from seeking help or disclosing their struggles. A survey conducted by Action on Addiction in the UK found that 75% of people with addiction problems felt stigmatised and unsupported by their employer. This stigma can create a culture of fear and mistrust in the workplace, where employees feel unsupported and are reluctant to speak out about their experiences, leading to further isolation and exacerbation of addiction issues.

Furthermore, while many organisations have drug and alcohol policies and disciplinary procedures in place, it has been reported that few provide employees with information about sources of support for drug and alcohol-related problems or guidance to managers on how to deal with disclosure and signpost to support. A lack of adequate support and training in addressing addiction-related issues in the workplace is evident in the data, with only a minority of organisations providing information to employees about disclosing a problem with substance misuse and abuse.

Clearly, the current approach in handling addiction at the workplace often falls short due to its surface-level treatment, stigmatisation, lack of adequate support and training, and insufficient understanding of the underlying causes of the issue. A more comprehensive and supportive approach is needed to effectively address substance abuse and misuse at work and create a healthier and more inclusive work environment for employees struggling with addiction issues.

Overcoming Barriers: Empowering Employees in Addiction Recovery

Addiction is a systemic problem that requires a systemic response. Employers need to acknowledge this reality and take steps to create a culture of compassion and support in the workplace. It is not enough to simply offer an employee assistance programme or conduct drug tests. Employers must actively work towards creating an environment where employees safely seek help without fear of losing their jobs.

managing addiction

One key aspect of improving addiction management at the workplace is addressing the underlying causes of addiction. Organisations must implement policies and programmes that go beyond surface-level treatment and focus on addressing the root causes. This includes providing mental health resources, reducing workplace stress, and addressing socio-economic factors that contribute to substance abuse. By taking a holistic approach, employers can better support employees in their recovery journey.

Additionally, employers must work towards removing barriers to treatment. Fear of discrimination or negative consequences can often deter employees from seeking help for their addiction issues. Employers can combat this by creating a supportive network of peers and mentors who can provide guidance and encouragement. By fostering a culture that prioritises well-being and recovery, employers help employees overcome their fears and access the needed support.

Furthermore, research has shown that organisational involvement in employee addiction is not only beneficial to the wellbeing of the affected employees, but also to the organisations themselves. According to Harvard Health Publishing, ‘treatment for addiction, facilitated within or by the workplace, has been shown to be successful in increasing employees’ legal, mental, and social functioning, as well as decreasing absenteeism rates, workplace conflict, and productivity problems upon return from treatment.’ The blog post also states that ‘investing in employee treatment yields high returns, with an estimated gain of 23% among employees with an income of $45,000 per year or an estimated gain of 64% for employees earning $60,000 per year.’

In today’s landscape of rising substance abuse and misuse levels, it’s crucial for employers to take a progressive approach to addiction in the workplace. By creating a culture of care and understanding, employers can not only support their employees’ recovery but also create a more productive, happy, and healthy workforce.


Addiction poses significant challenges not only to individuals but also to workplaces and society at large. Employers have a pivotal role in addressing addiction in the workplace, and it’s imperative to adopt a proactive and compassionate approach to tackle this issue effectively.

The existing approach of many employers of managing addiction falls short, often emphasising punitive measures rather than addressing the underlying causes of addiction. This approach not only adversely impacts employees but also leads to decreased productivity and heightened costs for businesses.

Employers must acknowledge that addiction is a systemic problem that necessitates a systemic response. By creating a culture of compassion and support, where employees feel safe to seek help and are not afraid of losing their jobs or facing discrimination, employers can empower their workforce in addiction management. 

Merely conducting drug tests is not enough; organisations must go beyond and actively work towards creating a work environment that prioritises managing addiction, the health and recovery of employees. By doing so, businesses can create a workplace that not only supports the well-being of their workforce but also leads to improved organisational outcomes.

Further Reading:

How to support employees with children: 7 ways
Working Remotely and Productivity: Interesting Insights
How to remove unconscious bias in recruitment

3 posts

About author
Adriana Aleksandrova is a consultant for Meduc8ion. She is an employee health advocate and regularly writes for the healthcare sector. She can be reached at Adriana@hear4u.co.uk.
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