8th October 2020

Letter from America: Addiction Stigma in the Workplace and Mental Health

25th May, 2019

Justin Baksh

Addiction remains a taboo topic in most professional environments, and the stigma of addiction and mental health can cripple a business for many reasons. Here’s why.


Why Mental Health and Addiction Stigmas on the Job Are the Worst Kept Secret

 Imagine your drive in to work and what you encounter on your ride home. More than likely, you’ll notice a phenomenon at the stop light. Look at the cars around you. I’ve know you’ve seen this – the increase in plumes of smoke (vape) coming from drivers on their work commute. Perhaps you never gave it a second thought. But here’s why you should as it’s indicative of a much larger problem.


·     1 in 7 drivers on U.S. roadways during rush hour abuse substances at work

·     If you’re the other 6 of 7, you’re still at risk


The numbers above only reflect what is reported. How many other people struggle with alcohol or drug abuse the world over that we never hear of until unfortunate circumstances take place as a result of it going untreated?


The Office Cooler Conversation Is Scarier than Before

Many people struggle with addiction and mental health disorders, and some experience both at the same time, known as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis. Statistically, near 50 percent of those with a drug or alcohol addiction also have a mental illness such as depressive, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. As a primary therapist in the addiction treatment industry, this is all too common and for many, keeps compromised mental health and addictive behaviors cycling into one another.


Coming forward about these issues with those we care about can be difficult. Bringing the subject in to the workplace takes on multiple layers of awkwardness, for a multitude of reasons.


1.    Perception

2.    Culture

3.    Morale

4.    Insurance

5.    Worker’s Comp

6.    Cost


All over the world, different cultures hold different perceptions of substance abuse and mental health disorders. Though I cannot speak for those I have not seen, I can certainly share perspectives based on my experiences with patients, their families, and the clinicians I worked with then and now. We talk about how important it is for patients to have a strong personal support system to rely on for help. Not everyone has that to call their own. That’s why specialized treatment is crucial because it creates that support system.


Here’s the big caveat.For someone fighting substance abuse or mental illness in the workplace, there is no support system to speak of there. From worker to coworker, management to human resources and up the ladder to C-level executives and business owners, this isn’t a subject that comes with a safe space for discussion, especially when the end goal is to keep your employment.


Part of the problem is in how we stigmatize both health issues in the workplace. Though simultaneously, many employers silently advocate drug and alcohol use – especially if these workers are productive or bring in cash flow to a business.


Stigmas, Myths and Mixed Messaging at Work about Behavioral Health 

Social misunderstandings about addiction and mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders are evident on a global scale. They are vibrant on social media and the selfie outcries are disheartening.  Harsh judgments and absence of compassion for those who desperately need it isn’t helping the growing rates of suicide.


The perceived shame surrounding addictions and mental health disorders ultimately discourage many people from seeking treatment. Here are some of the myths I have heard over the years working in behavioral health:


Mental Health and Addiction Myths:

·       Either condition is a sign of weakness
False, mental illness and addiction can be brought on by chemical imbalances, stress, and exposure to traumatic events.

·       Either condition is just cause for employment loss
False. Many mental health conditions fall under the disability category of employment candidacy.

·     All drug addicts choose that lifestyle
False.Everyday people who endure ongoing stress, life-altering circumstances, and medical issues that induce chronic pain and subsequent drug prescriptions, such as opioids, put them at risk for addiction.

·     Addiction and mental disorders are lifelong sentences
False. Many people can overcome drug and alcohol dependencies and mental health diagnoses with condition-specific treatment and practicing healthy coping skills.


The stigmas surrounding substance abuse and mental health problems are significant barriers to the people who experience these issues. Stigma prevents them from admitting to their problems and can even propel them deeper into addiction. They not only fear others’ judgments about their situation but also the ridicule and ostracism they may face after coming forward about their issues. This is magnified on the job. Unless you’re someone who has figured out the “system” which has two sides: employee and employer.



A High Functioning Addict Is an Oxymoron

No one chooses to become addicted. Some people make poor choices and experiment with drugs and alcohol at young ages, laying the groundwork for addiction later in life. Some people turn to substance abuse to cope with trauma and abuse. But it can also happen based on a company’s work culture or on-the-job stress.


For example, a drink after a stressful day at the office may seem harmless enough at first, but one drink eventually becomes two, two becomes a bottle, and drinking becomes the priority. It may not seem as though this is celebrated in the workplace but for some, it might as well be based on what’s accepted.


Many millennials, Gen Xrs, and baby boomers have sought career success through addictive behaviors. Whether it’s the workaholic who can’t turn it off or the quintessential salesperson that schmoozes on a daily basis at the hot spots and bars with clientele to close a new deal or keep them from eyeing competitors, employers are happy to turn the other cheek for the almighty dollar.


As the Chief Clinical Director at Foundations Wellness Center, I share the following as typical scenarios echoed by patients over the years who have struggled with behavioral health issues on the job:


1.    The support and promotion of Adderall and other stimulants at work to enhance performance and productivity.

2.    Scheduling and expectation of overconsumption of alcohol to satiate clients or entertain them, even when it’s obvious there is a problem with codependency.

3.    Insensitivity or ignorance in addressing obvious mental health issues with employees or fear of upsetting other employees.


Stigma and avoidance don’t do the workplace any favors. Depression in someone may appear as laziness or antisocial behavior to the uninformed. Bipolar episodes may define a person as crazy or unreliable. Social anxiety is on the rise and those with this diagnosis are off-handedly labeled as a “weirdo” or recluse.


Conversely, I’ve seen people manipulate employers by taking advantage of the financial resources available to them as an employee, while simultaneously avoiding treatment.


I recall a young woman working at a high profile, global, semiconductor and software engineering firm. Her back had been hurt some years earlier and she was in and out of physical rehab and consistently using and abusing prescription opioids. Between her use of PTO, disability, taking a lengthy and paid sabbatical, and then resetting the clock to start the use of these employee benefits all over again, she was costing the company in lost productivity as well as financially. However, no one was addressing the elephant in the room: her drug addiction and depression.


Through information and education, we can all do better.


Employers Can Help Ease Mental Health Issues and Addiction in the Workplace

The perpetuation of negative stereotypes and stigmas around addiction and mental health disorders is a net negative for the world. The people who need help may fear to look for it or speak up about their problems, and those carrying misconceptions or judgments can influence others to adopt similar unhealthy and uncompassionate ideas.


Employers who notice employees struggling with mental health issues and addiction can help. By implementing strategies that increase mental health and addiction awareness, ingrained prejudices are minimized - bolstering harmony in the workplace.


·     Foster better work-life balance. Expecting employees to meet consistently demanding schedules and deadlines ultimately makes it difficult for them to detach from work and enjoy their free time. This stress can bleed over into all other aspects of an employee’s life.

·     Support stress management. Workshops can be valuable for all members of a company, from seasoned top executives to the newest hires at the entry level of the organization. These workshops are meant to help employees cope with stress and learn healthy communication methods to talk about their problems.

·     Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).Many addiction treatment programs offer employee assistance programs to employers for employees that admit a problem with substance abuse or mental health. This provides a positive solution by allowing people the opportunity to heal, reintegrate back into their employment after treatment, and removes the taboo and stigma about these behavioral health conditions.


Employers who can see past the stigma of addiction help employees resume work, but also build a strong bond that encourages loyalty and top productivity upon their return.


The Real Cost of Untreated Addiction and Mental Health Disorders for Employers


Investing in a struggling employee’s recovery can be a net benefit to the employer. Instead of going through the motions of firing an employee and potential backlash from a wrongful termination lawsuit, and then recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement, the employer should consider the value of investing in the struggling employee’s recovery.  


Untreated mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders can cost employers in many ways, including lost productivity, low employee morale, and increased absences. Employers who take compassionate, proactive steps to help their employees recover often find that the stigmas surrounding addiction and mental health disorders cause more harm than good.


It’s amazing the good that can come when you invest in people.

Justin Baksh

Justin Baksh is the Chief Clinical Officer of Foundations Wellness, an addiction treatment centre. Treatment plans offered include a robust Employee Assistance Programto employers who want to help struggling employees recover from their substance abuse and mental health disorders, allowing them to return to work happy and productive. Justin obtained his MS in Mental Health Counseling and has substantial clinical experience working as a Primary Therapist.

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