Amy C. Willis knows what it’s like to hide a drinking problem at work.
She says it took her many years to get sober after struggling with alcohol misuse that she kept secret from her family, friends and work colleagues.
”It never even occurred to me to bring that issue to work because I had so much shame,” says Ms. Willis, a former HIV prevention researcher who now runs a sobriety coaching business in Toronto for women and the LGBTQ+ community called Hol + Well.
“I never considered the possibility of seeking any kind of support [at work] because I was far too worried about the consequences.”
While alcohol has long been a staple of workplace socializing, from after-work drinks at the local watering hole to boozy conferences and awards dinners, issues of alcohol misuse and dependence in the workplace have stayed firmly in the shadows.
In past, men have typically had higher incidences of alcohol misuse. However, there is growing evidence that women are increasing their drinking to the point of catching up with men.
“We do know that drinking among women has increased steadily in recent years,” says Dr. Talia Varley, physician lead for advisory services at Cleveland Clinic Canada. “There’s a mix of hard and soft data out of Canada and a lot of other reinforcing data points around this growing issue coming from the U.S. as well.”
Between 2003 and 2016, the rate of alcohol-related emergency department visits in Ontario for young women increased by 240 per cent. A 2018 report from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer showed that the alcohol-attributed death rate for women increased by 26 per cent from 2001 to 2017, compared with a roughly 5 per cent increase over the same period for men.
In the U.S., a 2020 RAND Corporation study showed that women’s heavy drinking episodes increased by 41 per cent compared with before the pandemic.
Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, director of the U.S.-based Volpicelli Center for Addiction Treatment, says that he has seen a sharp rise in women with alcohol addiction issues in recent years.
“I have worked with many women professionals who were severely impacted at work by alcohol issues,” he says. “For example, I have several women in our treatment program who work as healthcare professionals. Concern over being discovered often led them to avoid seeking help, at least until their alcohol drinking led to severe consequences in the workplace.”
Tanya Sinclair, founder of Black HR Professionals of Canada, says that women may hide their drinking problems because of fears they will let down those who count on them.
“It’s the pressure to live up to societal norms, that you can’t have a problem with alcohol because we count on you to be the strong one or the caregiver traditionally,” she says. “That [pressure] forces people to hide more as well as feel the extra burden.”
This is especially problematic for marginalized women who already face workplace discrimination and higher stress which is often connected to increased alcohol addiction risk, says Ms. Sinclair.
Lisa Isaac, an Indigenous woman and private HR consultant based in Sarnia, Ont., points to the impact of oppression within Indigenous communities that often leads to increased alcohol consumption in this population.
“The intergenerational trauma of genocide and the impact of residential schools has left many of our communities and families without support to deal with the trauma, or new stresses, leading to a higher chance of substance [misuse],” she says.
For her part, Ms. Willis says that as a queer woman, she had a particularly complicated relationship with alcohol.
”Bars have historically been safe spaces for queer people where you are seen and celebrated and loved,” she says. “We’re stepping into those spaces with so much extra emotional baggage in the form of trauma, rejection from family of origin, microaggressions, minority stress, all of it. I think we don’t even realize in a lot of cases that we’re just that much more vulnerable to issues with substances.”
Reducing the stigma
Meanwhile, alcohol misuse or dependence is something that is typically not talked about in workplaces, often due to lack of knowledge and stigma, says Ms. Sinclair. “Nobody wants to go there.”
In order to reduce that stigma, the kind of education programs that have been employed around mental health should be extended to address alcohol and substance use, she says.
“It’s only recently that the population has become a little bit more comfortable about talking about mental health because there’s been a lot more awareness raising,” Ms. Sinclair says. “I think that’s going to have to be the same case for [conditions like] alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder.”
Dr. Varley says that the Cleveland Clinic works with companies on developing multiyear mental health strategies, organizational risk reduction and employee health and safety policies, and part of that work is talking to companies about destigmatization.
“We’ve been making the argument that as you start to destigmatize and normalize the discussion of mental health [conditions] like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, we need to think about the next areas of focus, which we believe very much includes addiction medicine.”
Education initiatives can involve storytelling, Ms. Sinclair says, such as guest speakers, fellow employees or workplace leaders sharing their own experiences with alcohol or substance misuse. “Storytelling is so powerful because as you listen to someone’s story, you can find something in it that you can connect with, something you can learn or something that forces you to think about things differently.”
From an HR standpoint, Ms. Isaac notes that most employees don’t realize what excellent resources that Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can be. However, these programs may need to offer more creative and inclusive ways for marginalized women to get safe and inclusive support.
“Employers should be knowledgeable about the definition of a disability, including dependencies and addictions, and to plan for what an accommodation for a disability to the point of undue hardship might look like,” she says. “This way, the employer is ready in case a situation comes up, so they can remain compliant with human rights legislation.”
‘A refreshed angle’
As people return to the workplace, it will likely force a lot of visibility around issues like alcohol misuse that might have been difficult to detect during remote work, says Dr. Varley. “We think we’re going to see a lot more of this conversation in the months and years to follow.”
She notes that it’s important for all organizations to ensure that there’s a thoughtful review of workplace policies around mental health and substance use. “As we’re refreshing policies around COVID-19, infectious disease and pandemic preparedness plans, this is a perfect time to start thinking about some of those expanded areas of the mental health perspective that could really benefit from a refreshed angle.”
Workplace leaders need to be trained in how to recognize potential problem drinking, says Ms. Sinclair, and more importantly, what to say.
”You have to be careful that you’re not diagnosing,” she says. “It’s about creating the dialogue of inquiry, asking enough questions to give the person a safe space [to open up] and letting them know that it’s a supportive workplace. It’s saying, ‘I’m worried about you and I want to know what I can do to help or to understand. I’m not trained to support whatever challenge you have, but I am somebody who can connect you with some resources.’”
To further support people who might be struggling with alcohol-related issues, organizations should ensure that work events and socializing don’t revolve around alcohol, says Ms. Willis.
It’s a move that could be beneficial for all, she adds.
”That builds more connection because people are fully present. They can remember what was said and what actually happened,” she says. “It just takes a little bit of creative thinking and an openness to want to try something different.”
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