Employers urged to look for signs of substance abuse

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The physiological and behavioural impacts of socially acceptable drugs, such as alcohol and caffeine, can have harmful effects on workplaces and productivity, and a leading corporate health expert has warned employers to recognize the warning signs of abuse.

Rachel Clements, psychologist and director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, has said that because so many people regularly drink alcohol and caffeinated drinks, we are often unaware of the warning signs when moderate use slips into substance misuse.

Clements warned that caffeine and alcohol are the two most commonly used substances in the workplace and are sometimes used to mask, hide or compensate for underlying mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

It is for this reason that substance misuse issues commonly occurs in conjunction with a mental health issue.

Clements said that while it can be difficult to determine whether the mental health issue caused the substance misuse or vice versa, it is very common that a person who is experiencing a mental health issue, such as depression, will exhibit symptoms such as low mood, lethargy, tiredness etc.

Additionally, and generally speaking, substance misuse at work can result in:

  • Absenteeism or lateness
  • Poor communication
  • Aggression towards colleagues and clients
  • Inappropriate behaviour (such as ''telling off a client'')
  • A performance risk to the business
  • Client or staff complaints

In order to compensate for, or 'mask' the way he or she is feeling, an employee may consume excessive amounts of caffeine to increase their energy levels or temporarily improve their mood.

Similarly, those feeling depressed or anxious, may abuse alcohol as a way to "block out" their painful feelings or to help them relax.

While substance misuse is often difficult to detect, and a sensitive issue to raise, the Centre for Corporate Health advised that symptoms of substance abuse can resemble those of mental illnesses and is very complex given individuals may be using multiple substances, and/or have other health problems complicating the issue.

The first step for HR is to look for changes in behaviour and everyday functioning that are not characteristic of the person, and then consider what can be done to help, such as:

  • Talk to the person about your observations and concerns
  • Offer support and assistance
  • Assist by accommodating leave requests
  • Check in and review how the person is progressing

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