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The sheer volume of people who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or drugs make it inevitable that many of us may have a colleague who is struggling.
The current National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance on alcohol use disorders states that 24% of people in England drink in a way that either has the potential to be harmful to their well being or is causing them harm. Worse still, 6% of men and 2% of women aged between 16 and 65 in England find themselves dependent on alcohol. And many of those are in work.
Due to the high numbers of people in society who have a dependency on alcohol or substances, there’s a good chance we will at some stage work with someone who has an addiction.
Being able to spot the signs means you may be able to act to help a colleague to reach out for the help they need, support them to take action before their job or health is put at serious risk and perhaps prevent a catastrophic incident such as an accident or sackable offence.
Here we take a look at some of the signs that a colleague or coworker has an alcohol or drug addiction.
It may seem like a statement of the obvious to say that someone who has an addiction is likely to use drink or drugs excessively, yet it is clearly a sign that must be taken into account.
Not everyone who has a drug or alcohol problem will drink or use every day. In fact, many people are able to live in prolonged denial because they believe their ability to abstain from drink on certain days of the week – or between certain times of the day – is proof that they are in control.
However, people who are addicted are likely to drink or take drugs to excess at times and these instances may become more frequent.
At certain stages of dependence, someone with a problem may try to entice others to join them to drink or take drugs to excess after work or at lunch. Later they may begin hiding their drink or drug use.
The signs and symptoms of alcoholism and drug dependency include someone drinking or taking drugs:
As mentioned above, one of the signs of addiction is beginning to fail to meet responsibilities and prioritising drinking or drug taking over other things that someone used to value.
For some people, this may perhaps mean failing to make themselves available for childcare or no longer being on time for work or appointments.
It could also manifest itself as missing deadlines for projects at work, not stepping up to help with things they may usually have done or failing to deliver necessary results.
Someone in an earlier stage of addiction may work very hard to ensure they are always on time and don’t miss responsibilities despite their drinking or drug use in order to maintain the illusion of being in control, both to themselves and others.
A Public Health England evidence review into the burden of alcohol noted that alcohol is a significant risk factor for both absenteeism and presenteeism (working while unwell).
People who have an alcohol or drugs issue may have unplanned absences due to excessive drink or drug sessions or start to need time off due to more long term health consequences as a result of their substance use. These may be physical issues or be due to associated mental ill health problems, such as depression.
Patterns of absenteeism or ill health are also things to look out for, such as being regularly absent or ill on Mondays or straight after pay day.
A sign of addiction to alcohol and some drugs is the presence of physical withdrawal symptoms following a period without using.
With alcohol, for example, this may include vomiting, stomach cramps, sweating and the shakes. Frequently coming to work with these symptoms or in the midst of a hangover or comedown from alcohol or drugs may be a sign of a problem.
Not all substances cause physical withdrawal in everyone. There may be other signs of cocaine addiction or cannabis addiction, for example. Heightened anxiety, depression, irritability or paranoia may also be after effects of harmful or dependent drink and drug use.
If someone is needing to use drugs or drink to get through the work day, they may begin disappearing for frequent periods alone.
They may return seeming more alert, with dilated pupils or with a runny nose, if they are a cocaine user for example.
Sometimes aftershave, perfume or mints may be used in a bid to disguise the smell of cannabis or alcohol.
Excessive or addictive drink or drug use is, over time, likely to take a toll on performance at work.
Earlier in their addiction journey, a person may be able to maintain performance and hide their problem, but in time it is likely to have an impact.
Negative changes in someone’s performance or ability to cope are indicators for concern.
The Public Health England evidence review into the burden of alcohol, mentioned earlier in this post, noted a correlation between stress and long working hours and excessive alcohol consumption.
The report says it may be that people who work long hours and have a lot of stress drink to try to deal with it, but also in some cases perhaps that stress grows due to reduced performance as a result of excessive drinking.
Environments where long hours and high stress are prevalent often go hand-in-hand with excessive drinking or drug taking. They can also lead to work burnout.
That is not to say the behaviour will always cross the line between harmful and dependent, but it’s another thing to be aware of.
Addiction often leads people to begin displaying personality traits that are not usual for them.
This can display as aggression, an inability to cope, signs of paranoia or being very irritable or moody.
Alternatively, they may also become more blasé and appear to care less about their work.
Funding an addiction is often expensive and, as tolerance tends to increase with exposure to many drugs, a growing level of dependence often leads to an increasingly expensive habit.
A co-worker who is drug or alcohol dependent may begin to show signs of increased money troubles, may ask to borrow money or struggle to pay their way for other things.
What to do if you suspect a colleague has an addiction
Depending on your relationship with your colleague, you may feel able to speak with them directly.
It’s important to emphasise that you’re concerned for them, want to help and to try not to be accusatory or judgmental. Our ‘How to help a drug addict’ post has some tips that are relevant.
If this doesn’t have the desired result, you’re concerned someone or the business could come to harm due to the suspected addiction issues or you don’t feel comfortable raising your concerns directly with your colleague, you may wish to speak to your HR team or a manager. You can ask to speak with them in confidence and need not feel like a whistle blower. You can emphasise that you are speaking with compassion and concern.
In being brave enough to speak out, you may prevent further harm and allow someone to get the help they need to recover.
Even if the behaviour you are worried about turns out not to be linked to addiction, your colleague may have another issue that they need help with and may be relieved to be asked if they are ok.
Addiction in the workplace is something that many employers are now becoming more aware of. It’s something we are very conscious of at Delamere – and part of the reason we recognised the importance of welcoming workplace wellness expert Prof Sir Cary Cooper onto our advisory board.
At our Delamere launch event, Sir Cary noted that: “In 2017/18 57% of all long term sickness absence was stress and depression, which can manifest as alcohol abuse, drug abuse and mental ill health.”
Employers are increasing taking steps around what they can do to assist employees with drug and alcohol problems and a responsible employer will be grateful to you for raising your concern and allowing them to act in the interests of your colleague and the business.
David is our General Manager at Delamere. David brings a huge amount of experience from both the hospitality and healthcare sectors. Find out more about David on our team page.
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