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Addiction in the Workplace

Addiction in the Workplace:
A guide for managers and business owners.

Have you noticed a significant drop in performance, unusual behaviour, or excessive absenteeism for someone at work lately? They may feel exhausted all the time, have lost or gained a lot of weight, or appear untidier than usual. Or perhaps an employee has become secretive about their activities and whereabouts, seems to be acting impulsively, more sensitive than usual, not eating lunch or coffee with the team like they normally do, or complaining about financial issues? More obvious signs can include smelling of alcohol, receiving multiple penalties for drink driving, or failing a routine workplace drug test.

When we experience addiction, we are unable to stop pursuing the immediate feel-good sensation that certain substances or activities provide, even when we know it’s hurting our health, relationships, and professional performance. Often, this is driven by a need to escape emotional or physical discomfort. Over time, addictive behaviour can turn into a vicious cycle.

Someone experiencing an addiction might not show up at work or miss deadlines. You may notice them making careless mistakes or risky judgments, risking their own and others’ safety and well-being. Their behaviour may become edgy, restless, or unpredictable, affecting interpersonal relationships at work.

What is Addiction?

Put simply, addiction is a harmful pattern of using something to the extent that it causes us significant distress and affects our day-to-day functioning. This could be a substance, like alcohol, cannabis or methamphetamine, or an activity, like gambling or porn.

When we suffer from an addiction, our use can feel out of control. We struggle to reduce or stop using, even when we want to. In the clinical sense, “substance use disorders” can be diagnosed by a health professional. However, these do not capture the full experience of addiction. Sometimes, people overcoming addiction refer to themselves as being in recovery.

Types of Addiction

Common types of addiction include physical addictions such as:
• Alcohol
• Other Drugs
• Tobacco and Vape
• Prescription drugs (such as sedatives and painkillers)

Also, a person may experience some behavioural addictions, such as:

• Shopping addiction
• Internet addiction
• Gambling addiction
• Gaming addiction
• Pornography addiction

However, gambling is currently the only behavioural addiction recognised by formal diagnostic classification systems.

You may notice a person substituting one addiction for another, particularly if they enter treatment. One theory is that this happens because the withdrawal phase leads to a significant reduction in dopamine levels in our brain, thereby reducing our capacity for experiencing pleasure. To ease the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms and get back to feeling happy and excited, we may, therefore, switch to a different addiction.

Others say that the change is more of an attempt to fill the emotional void left by giving up the substance or behaviour because of the underlying emotional pain it was initially helping to mask. People in recovery often share their experiences of deep healing once they stopped using and how the addiction was their way to cope with intense emotions or trauma.
How Common is Addiction in New Zealand?

Using alcohol or other drugs and behaviours like gambling are common in Aotearoa, New Zealand. According to a recent NZ Health study , over 93% of the adult population consume alcohol at some time in their lives, and 49% reported using recreational drugs. When it comes to harmful use, one in every five adults is reportedly drinking in a way that might impair their health. About 50,000 New Zealanders receive support each year for alcohol and other drug use. According to estimates, however, this barely accounts for one-third of persons experiencing challenges with alcohol abuse.

How to Support Someone at Work Facing Addiction

Beginning a conversation about addiction with a colleague or employee who might have a problem is a brave and important thing to do. It is also delicate because the person is probably worried about others finding out or losing their job, which can be a real risk, especially if they are using alcohol or drugs in the workplace. You don’t want to sound judgmental or accusatory, but you also need to communicate clearly about your limits as an employer. So, here are some guidelines to help you handle the situation with empathy and care while being clear about boundaries.

Ensure confidentiality: Building trust and respecting the person’s privacy is essential. What they share can stay between you. You only need to involve others when there are concerns about a person’s safety. Be ready for any response. Some people will appreciate your concern and support, while others may deny or become defensive. If they aren’t ready to talk, let them know that you are there in the future.

Show empathy: When dealing with addiction at work, it is critical to express concern without judgment or accusation. Instead of jumping to conclusions, say specifically what you have noticed and ask curious questions. Also, it is crucial to let the person know you’re offering support rather than promising a quick fix or loads of advice. Remember, recovery is possible—Signpost people to where they can get help.

Assert boundaries: Don’t overlook repeated absences, colleagues’ covering for their mahi (work), or safety risks. A person is still responsible for their behaviour. Be clear about what you need as an employer and apply your policies and procedures. Read employer guidelines if you are considering alcohol or drug tests at work.

Managing Health and Safety Risks

The last thing you want to happen when dealing with addiction at work is for the person who experiences the problem to feel pressured, judged, or stigmatised. The goal is not to confront the person but to let them know you care and are there to support them. Still, safety in the workplace is of the utmost importance. Therefore, be clear about unacceptable behaviour and encourage the person to seek support and treatment.

Put Safety First: Upon learning about addiction, the safety of the affected person and their coworkers should be the immediate concern. In this situation, staying calm and deciding the following steps to prevent harm are essential. This can be done by temporarily modifying the person’s job duties and reassigning tasks while they recover, especially if the person’s role includes handling sensitive information, hazardous substances, or heavy machinery.

Set clear boundaries: It is important to ensure all employees understand the expectations and boundaries regarding behaviours in the workplace. Have a clear policy outlining what behaviours aren’t acceptable and the consequences for violating the policies, including around alcohol and drug use specifically. Also, it is essential to document the occurrences and steps taken to address the situation, as this ensures that the policies are applied consistently. If you have HR, involve them to make sure you and the person are well supported.

Suggest asking for help: Encourage the person to seek help from their whānau (family), support groups (such as AA or NA), or a professional such as their GP or a specialist addictions service such as CADS or the Problem Gambling Foundation.

If you’re an employer, create an environment where employees feel comfortable seeking help. Encourage them to take advantage of employee assistance programmes (EAPs), mental health first aiders, or other services available via the workplace. Also, be mindful of having a workplace that doesn’t encourage a culture of harmful substance use, such as ensuring work functions that aren’t focused on alcohol and having non-alcoholic beverage options.

Seek advice if you need help with how to handle the situation: When dealing with workplace addiction, it can be helpful to seek support from clinical experts such as via MindMatters Clinic, HR professionals, or legal professionals.

Supporting Recovery from Addiction

Recovery from addiction is possible, but for some, it can be a complex and challenging journey. The hope and support demonstrated by coworkers and employers can play a huge role in making that journey possible. Therefore, offer support and flexibility within reasonable limits of what your specific workplace can provide. This can include anything from just being there to listen without judgment to adjusting schedules to accommodate therapy appointments. See Employment New Zealand’s guidelines for reasonable accommodations.

Supporting an employee through addiction recovery is all about creating an environment in which they feel supported and secure, knowing that the team has their back while they focus on getting better.

Click here to download the MindMatters Addiction in the workplace RESOURCE.


NZ’s leading clinical experts in workplace mental health and wellbeing, contact us today to be connected to the best psychologist to meet your specific needs. MindMatters Clinic provide individual executive coaching and psychological support to businesses, as well as working with organisations to manage mental health and psychosocial risks. We also do speaking events.

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