Have you ever considered what you’d do if an employee revealed they were struggling with drug or alcohol dependency?

If not, it’s likely you’re among the majority – particularly in the SME sector – who are unprepared for this scenario. But could that harm your business as well as being of detriment to your staff?

Certainly, says wellness expert and renowned organisation psychologist Prof Sir Cary Cooper, of Alliance Manchester Business School, Manchester University. And he’s not alone in the view.

Alcohol and drug dependency is yet to shake off the shackles of taboo that mental ill health is now beginning to break free of, but addiction is mental ill health, Sir Cary says. 

And if you employ 100 people, Public Health England statistics indicate at least one of them is likely to be alcohol dependent (1.3% of the population is according to its most recent alcohol dependence prevalence report). A 2018 NHS Digital Statistics on drug misuse report indicated as many as 4% of working men and 2% of working women are drug dependent.

Sir Cary said: “If you look at the figures from the HSE, 57% of all sickness absence last year was down to stress, anxiety and depression. One of the manifestations of stress is alcohol abuse. 

“All employers should have a support system for their employees who are having difficulty coping either with work related issues or personal issues. That’s good for several different reasons. You don’t lose them and the rest of the staff see this is a place that is going to look after me. It’s about talent retention and talent attraction. You won’t attract people if you’ve got a reputation of burning them out and spitting them out. 

“This is not fluffy stuff, this is bottom line. ”

Of course there are obvious risks to the business of having someone within it who is drunk, high or not functioning on all cylinders due to a comedown. There’s necessity and good reason behind zero tolerance policies in relation to arriving at work under the influence of drink or drugs, but, when someone has an issue, dismissing and turning your back on them as an employer isn’t necessarily the only or even best option.

Sir Cary said: “One in four people will suffer a common mental disorder – stress, depression or anxiety at some stage in their life. They manifest in a lot of different ways and addiction is one of them.

“About 60 per cent of people who go to an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) have problems outside of work, but if affects them dramatically at work, therefore you can either get rid of them or work with it.

“If you want to get the most out of people you have to nurture them, protect them and support them.”

Sir Cary said the cost of losing a valuable member of staff – and all the associated recruitment and training costs combined with the reduced output of a new recruit – can easily outweigh that of investing in support for the team. That’s the case whether that be in early warning training or, when an issue is already established and entrenched, even paying for treatment.

It’s part of the reason he has joined the advisory board of the UK’s first purpose built addiction treatment and behavioural health clinic ‘Delamere’, in Cheshire, where one of the focuses is on ensuring businesses have access to support when a team member needs help. The centre has designed its own industry-leading care programme which integrates traditional treatment methods with progressive new thinking to view seeking treatment as a brave step toward recovery from a manifestation of mental illness rather than a shameful result of weakness.

The HR director of a global technology firm that covered the costs of treatment for a long serving member of staff explained the decision.

She said: “To begin with, he told us he was suffering with depression and anxiety and said it was being fuelled by a drinking problem. We said: ‘you need some time off to spend with your family.’

“We kept in touch with him and he admitted things were just getting worse.

“He went away and tried to find help through his GP, counselling and all NHS services on offer, but it didn’t seem to be giving him enough support. He really wanted to fix this and needed help now. He was stuck in a rut with no obvious end in sight.

“He has put in years and years of good service for us and we wanted to help him in his hour of need. It was the right thing to do. 

“We can clearly see how he has managed to turn things around since the point at which we realised he was struggling with his problem.”

That’s not to say the firm would be prepared to do the same for everyone or they’d say other firms should. 

The firm’s advice is that being tuned into the warning signs of addiction can help protect individuals and the business.

The HR director, who cannot be named to protect the anonymity of the staff member, said: “There are often reasons behind poor attendance, for example. People don’t bring it to their managers unless they are specifically asked.

“Having that awareness and dialogue with employees to identify issues early on means you retain the workforce and it does make them more loyal to you as an employee. It shows them they are not just a resource, you value their mental and physical health and wellbeing too.

“Employees with addiction are suffering and deserve support rather than to be stigmatised as they once were.”

Martin Preston, founder of new rehab treatment and behavioural health centre Delamere, said: “Even Employee Assistance Programmes very often don’t offer the depth of specialist support with addiction necessary for people to really change things when they’re physically dependent.

“I’ve spoken to countless caring and progressive employers who want to support staff, but don’t know what best to do or where to seek advice.

“I’d urge all employers to contact a professional immediately if they’re concerned for a member of staff, but also to consder what they’d do for someone facing addiction before an issue arises. It’s so important both for individuals and the health of businesses.”