By NICOLE VAN DEN BOSCH, Published in Employment Law - Feature

Through my personal and professional experience, I have noticed that the common trend in workplace reaction to addiction ironically mimics the thinking an addict or alcoholic has towards his or her recovery – they want to minimise the consequences of substance abuse with no purposeful measures implemented to address the underlying problems, and think by doing this they can halt the addiction all together both in the short and long term.


For example, a middle aged male alcoholic may wish to continue drinking socially but no longer wants to risk being arrested for drinking and driving; receive warnings at work for tardiness and absenteeism; have his wife threaten divorce every Sunday evening and experience guilt and shame for the lack of time he is spending with his children. In the same way, a company would recognise the negative consequences that the employee's drinking is having on his work, productivity, reliability, medical aid claims, relationships with colleagues and so on. Once the HR Department or Employee Wellness Programme coordinators decide to seek professional assistance, they are often only looking to put an end to the effect the employee's addiction is having on his productivity in the workplace rather than a long-term solution addiction treatment. The company wants a quick fix – just as the alcoholic wants a quick and guaranteed solution to the problem.

These corporate views are not necessarily wholly based on selfish motives but rather illustrate a genuine lack of comprehension of the disease of addiction. The treatment of addiction, and the views surrounding it, are complex and therefore it is difficult for an employer to understand what treatment is required, what works best and how to implement long-term support. And, is it an employer's responsibility to provide this at all?

In my practice, I have noticed that the current trend seems to be an increased awareness of addiction and a genuine interest in assisting employees rather than dismissing them. Large corporates, in particular, seem to be increasingly cognisant of addiction in the workplace and are adjusting their HR Policies to allow for drug and alcohol testing and correct dismissal procedures. Just as more employees are seeking more self-actualised lives, more companies have become willing to invest in the mental health of their workforce.

Unfortunately, this awareness and a couple of drop down categories on the company website is often where it ends. Companies cannot be solely blamed for this though. The successful treatment of addiction is statistically dire. I often mention to people that if they are looking for a career that is successful in terms of numbers, addiction counselling is most certainly not the one to choose.

An example of this is a large corporate that I recently met with. All their employees' medical aids are subsidised by the company and, therefore, each employee has access to at least 21-days in-patient rehabilitation treatment for addiction related illness each year. Most of their employees only agree to admission to this treatment because they are on the verge of losing their jobs. Unfortunately, not long after discharge they often relapse and return to their previous behaviour. It is no wonder then that upper management has little faith in the treatment system. My recommendation to this company has been that it is necessary to provide for an after-care programme which will support the affected employees after they have completed their intensive inpatient treatment. This, of course, comes with an additional cost to the company and, as always, no guarantees of long-term success. However, there is some good news - statistics show that the longer the term of the rehabilitation process, the more likely it is that an employer will be rewarded with healthier well-rounded employees whose values are based on principles such as humility, honesty, patience, discernment and a diligent work ethic.

A question I am often asked is what class of employee is more inclined to voluntarily seek assistance. In my experience it most frequently middle management or ambitious employees, eager to climb the corporate career ladder and those who have some insight into the disease or have a family member or friend that may have addiction issues. Those most unlikely to seek assistance are often top management. At that level there can often be, apart a self-perceived status of superiority, an inability to deal with the shame of the disease. How can a CEO possibly admit that he is a sex addict who relies on prescription medication to get through the day? And what if his employees possibly see him walking into a support group or out of a counselling session with me? Untreated addiction issues in top management often impact the company's rehabilitation policies, fear of being caught out. The conclusion I have drawn from these observations is that awareness and education is indispensable at all levels.

Another significant challenge we face in a culture where a pill is prescribed for any symptom or life challenge, is the fact that addiction is often unacknowledged and untreated as it is masked by a psychiatric diagnosis. For instance, an employee may see their GP or psychiatrist and explain symptoms that could be diagnosed as, for example, bipolar disorder. The employee will describe symptoms such as extreme highs, impulsive spending, insomnia and racing thoughts, to name a few, which are then followed by bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts, guilt and shame. The patient however, does not disclose that they are using drugs or drinking obsessively. The employee returns to work with a doctor's certificate and a script. The employee is now able to explain and justify his or her negative behaviours through the lens of a psychiatric diagnosis and, consequently, the company is rendered virtually powerless when addressing associated absenteeism, diminished productivity, theft etc. Having said that, it is important to note that some addicts will have co-occurring disorders and the most appropriate treatment for this is a dual diagnosis programme, which treats both psychiatric distress and accompanying dependence on substances.

The issues may appear almost entirely pessimistic but there is hope. Companies play a significant role in supporting and rehabilitating an employee. They are able to monitor and provide support on a daily basis. I implore companies not to give up on the fight against the disease of addiction. A company culture that embraces a supportive and well-informed approach towards addiction will have a greater probability of manifesting into a healthy, well-adjusted and productive workforce.

Van den Bosch runs Recovery Solutions.