Is addiction hiding in your workplace?

New health and safety regulations mean employers have an obligation to mitigate the risk of addiction but one industry expert says it’s not always obvious there’s an issue.

“The majority of alcoholics and addicts are highly functioning and they are in our workforces and they are people that we see as middle and upper middle class, walking through life every day,” says Rebecca Flood, CEO of New Directions for Women – a California-based recovery centre.

Flood says that, because addiction remains taboo in many workplaces, employees are often reluctant to come forward.

“I think addiction is the most stigmatized disease that we have,” she says. “People have a lot of shame, guilt and remorse around it and many people think that it is wilful misconduct rather than a diagnosable disease.”

However, Flood – who has close to 40 years’ experience working in the addiction field – says workers may still exhibit some tell-tale behaviours.

“Tardiness is one of the things we can look out for – especially if there is a pattern of tardiness on Mondays and Fridays or the day before and after their day off,” she tells HRM.

Sleepiness on the job can be another sign of addiction, according to Flood, and she says employers should also be aware of employees who take many breaks outside of the office or are vehement about having their lunch off-site.

“Lower morale among co-workers in a certain department can also be a sign because a lot of time they’re aware of the problem before management is aware there’s a problem,” she says.

Aside from being vigilant when it comes to typical behaviours, Flood says one of the most important things HR can do is create a culture where employees feel comfortable coming forward, knowing they won’t face reprisals.

“We all know that retaining an employee is much more beneficial and much less costly than rehiring, retraining and going through that process once again,” she tells HRM. “And there are plenty of things that employers can do to promote their employees being more open to getting support and help.”

One of Flood’s suggestions is to honour or create a day which promotes addiction awareness and encourages those afflicted to share their stories – just like many workplaces do with different forms of cancer.

“You can organize a recovery walk or create a ribbon that indicates you’re talking about it,” she says, adding that employers can also share literature, put posters up and even send out a questionnaire that could help employees identify an addiction problem in themselves or a loved one.

“We have talk about it very openly and once we embrace addiction as a disease rather than stigmatize it as wilful misconduct, we will begin to react and respond to it very differently.”