What businesses can learn from Dry January

Dry January is the annual campaign which urges participants to abstain from alcohol for a month. Paula Allen, Global Leader of Research and Total Wellbeing at TELUS Health shines a light on what businesses can learn from Dry January and how to identify and support substance use and addiction in the workplace.

It can deliver positive change, boost health and encourage people to focus on different activities or hobbies, but it can also reveal much to us about our dependency on alcohol in our social lives and its impact on our health.  

For those faced with a dependency or high-risk driving, balancing this alongside maintaining a job and professional duties can be a real challenge. In our Mental Health Index, we surveyed 2,000 working Brits and found that more than one in ten (14%) are concerned about their drinking or drug use.

Businesses can learn from the data on drinking, not only that more people than we expect, have substance use worries, but also, that this dependence needs to be handled carefully at work.

But how should employers go about identifying and supporting substance use issues in the workplace?

Identifying addiction

Noticing physical signs that seem out of the ordinary, is sometimes the first warning sign of drug use or addiction in the workplace.

Some physical signs include changes in physical appearance such as bloodshot eyes and abnormally sized pupils, unusual smells on breath or clothes, tremors, slurred speech, impaired awareness or reaction times. 

Aside from physical signs, an employee may find it harder to do their job when struggling with drinking or an addiction. This will be reflected in their performance and their behaviour. Factors such as time keeping and participation levels may be seen to decrease, absences may be more common and willingness to participate may seem different.

Some psychological differences to look out for could be, but are not limited to memory loss, impaired judgement, irritability, confusion and mood changes.

These changes in an employee’s behaviour or attitude are not exclusive to substance use issues and can highlight a multitude of other problems, such as their health or their personal life. However, they are all signs that there is something negatively affecting the employee, and that likely needs support.

Supporting addiction at work

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees’ health and welfare. Understanding how to identify the signs of drug or alcohol abuse or reliance, will be helpful in mitigating the risks of health and safety issues in the workplace and developing a drug and alcohol policy will help ensure this.

It’s also vital that employers make employees aware of the help that is available, by regularly communicating the pathways they can take when they feel they’re struggling with an addiction. Workplaces must also ensure that they have a policy in line for their employees who do feel they need help at work to handle a drug or alcohol dependence.

Employers and managers, even with workplace on substance use, cannot be expected to be experts in handling these kinds of issues. In fact, managers are more than twice as likely as non-managers to be concerned about their own drinking or drug use. Working with companies such as Breaking Free, a confidential wellness and recovery support program, gives companies access to professionals, who can provide robust intervention and therapy plans, to enable recovery from dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Workplaces would do well to increase awareness of substance abuse and addiction. This should educate employers on the programmes available, as well as providing some protection for employees who come forward. Our Mental Health Index found that one in six (17%) are also concerned about the drinking or drug use of someone in their household. Having education on this topic at work means that those who may not be struggling but are concerned about people close to them can learn about the help available and suggest it to their friends and family.

While employees are going through these programs, it is important to remember that progress is a process than happens over time. Showing confidence in your employees’ journey can often increase success.

Drug and alcohol dependence are recognised medical problems; therefore, addiction requires the same level of support as any other illness. Employers need to change how these challenges are perceived and break the taboo around addiction and dependency. No doing so, means the people will hide rather than get the support they need for a healthy life and productive work.

It's only through driving this message through all year round, that employees can feel comfortable accepting support, opening up and putting positive changes back into their life and work.