Supporting employees with addiction: Lessons from the accountancy industry

Rates of addiction across the UK have risen sharply over the past year. According to a recent survey commissioned by addiction charity The Forward Trust, 1 in 3 adults had relapsed into addiction during 2022 or knew someone close to them who had.

Rates of addiction across the UK have risen sharply over the past year. According to a recent survey commissioned by addiction charity The Forward Trust, 1 in 3 adults had relapsed into addiction during 2022 or knew someone close to them who had.

The NHS, meanwhile, has reported that demand for its addiction clinics is up by 42%.

In the accountancy sector, the picture is equally concerning. In a caba survey of nearly 2,000 chartered accountants, 1 in 7 of those we spoke to said they knew someone within the profession who they believe had an addiction. One in 5 admitted said their own drinking habits had negatively impacted their work or personal life, while a third of all those who said they gamble admitted they’re not always open with those around them about how often they do it or how much money they spend.

Complicating issues are worrying deepening cost-of-living crisis here in Britain. Millions of people across the country are now struggling to cover the costs of their basic human needs like groceries and energy bills. The stress, anxiety, and even trauma many of us feel as a direct result of this can create an environment in which addiction becomes more likely, as we try to find ways of coping.

Cristian Holmes, CEO of caba, the occupational charity for ICAEW chartered accountants explains that as with all societal issues, these issues don’t just stay at home. For HR professionals, this means an increased chance of having to handle a workplace situation where an employee is struggling with addiction. It’s essential, therefore, that every workplace has clear policies in place around substance misuse and other forms of addiction. This will ensure that both the employer and employees know which procedures to follow and that the individual struggling with addiction feels fully supported.

Health concern vs disciplinary action

There is no standardised way to approach addictive behaviours in the workplace. Some employers treat drug and alcohol misuse as gross misconduct and there are cases of employees being automatically dismissed for turning up to work under the influence.

However, HR professionals should be aware that drug and alcohol dependence are recognised medical problems. Therefore, anyone who is misusing them has the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recommends that preventing substance misuse forms part of an employer’s overall wellbeing offering – something that we at caba wholeheartedly agree with. This ensures any need for disciplinary action is coupled with a preventative and supportive approach to help employees get the help they need. While there may be times that employees need to be moved to a different department – for instance, if they’re in a safety-critical job – the goal should always be to support them in getting better.

We would also suggest that employers extend their policy to cover all forms of addiction, including behavioural addictions like gambling and gaming, and so-called invisible addictions like orthorexia (an obsession with health). Modern addiction can present itself in different ways and employers need to be aware of the signs so that they can act accordingly.

Creating a workplace policy for substance misuse and other forms of addiction

Every workplace should have a clear and consistent policy framework in place around addiction, which sets out the employer’s expectations for staff behaviour as well as the consequences for not meeting these expectations. It should provide details of the process for employees who wish to disclose an addiction, along with a list of any support systems and resources available to them such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

EAPs form an important part of a workplace’s wellbeing support offering and it’s important to raise awareness of them where they’re available. Some employees may feel hesitant about talking about an addiction within a workplace context – for instance, only 5% of those we surveyed said they’d go to their EAP about an addiction – therefore education around confidentiality is key.

A workplace addiction policy should also set out the procedure for any employee who wishes to flag a concern around a fellow colleague. According to our research, 1 in 14 accountants have witnessed a colleague taking drugs and 1 in 12 have witnessed a colleague gambling large amounts of money.  While these might not always indicate an addiction, employers should ensure that their staff have a means to raise any concerns both confidentially and discreetly so that any potential issues can be spotted early.

Further information on writing or updating a policy around substance misuse and other addictive behaviours can be found on the Health and Safety Executive’s website.

Educating and empowering managers and supervisors

Even with a clear policy in place, not all managers and supervisors are going to feel equipped to handle cases of addiction among their team. In fact, a CIPD survey found that only a third (30%) of employers provide guidelines for their managers on how to deal with disclosure and how to signpost to support.

Every employer should provide the appropriate training for managers. This should include training courses on how recognise the signs of addiction in others and what to do if they suspect that one of their team members is struggling with an addiction. Equally important is knowing what to do as a manager if someone approaches you about an addiction, including the use of non-stigmatising language.

Opening up the discussion around addiction

The bottom line is that addiction can happen to anyone. What can start as a seemingly harmless habit or coping mechanism can quickly spiral into something more serious.

That’s why it’s so important for employers to create and maintain a supportive workplace culture that openly talks about mental health and wellbeing. This must be led from the top down, with regular communication about what help is available to anyone struggling with a possible substance or behavioural addiction.

With the right policies and people in place, employers can ensure that their employees are treated fairly and have access to the support they need to get better.

At caba we’re campaigning for greater awareness of addiction within the accountancy sector. Whether it’s helping individuals identify the causes of addiction or providing guidance on how to support someone close to you with an addiction, our goal is to reduce the stigma that surrounds modern-day addiction and provide those who are struggling with the help and guidance they need.