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Bill Howatt, chief of research and work force productivity at The Conference Board of Canada looks on as Julie Irving, a psychologist at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, talks about the link between stress and substance abuse during a panel discussion at the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Award event in Toronto.The Globe and Mail

Understanding how to recognize and treat substance abuse in employees is critical to a healthy work force, according to speakers on a panel discussing addictions.

And stress – work-related or otherwise – is a key risk factor for developing an addiction or substance abuse problem, said Bill Howatt, chief of research, workforce productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, speaking at the Solving Workplace Challenges summit during the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards event, created by The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell, and presented on March 19 in Toronto.

“If you think about the average human being who gets up every day and is dealing with life, and whenever they have a difference between what they want and what they have, that’s [a thing] called stress,” Dr. Howatt said.

“We’re caught in our emotional brain. What we’re trying to do is no longer solve problems, what we’re trying to do is actually manage our emotions. And when we’re trying to manage our emotions, what do some people do to feel good under stress? Self-medicate.”

While stress can come from any number of sources, he warns that employers should be mindful of ways that work can cause or exacerbate these feelings. He suggests that employers get “a baseline understanding of where your workforce is to understand what their residual stress is and how they’re coping.”

But risk factors for addiction are not always external. According to Julie Anne Irving, staff psychologist at the Work, Stress, and Health clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), there are a number of inherited traits employees may display that could put them at risk of developing an addiction. “Notably, these are inherited factors,” Dr. Irving said. “There’s no choosing these things.”

Impulsiveness is one of these traits, Dr. Irving says. While perhaps easy to recognize in social settings, it can be challenging to detect in the office, because it so often manifests in positive ways while at work.

“Being able to make really fast decisions [is] often a good quality for some of our employees to have, depending on the workplace,” Dr. Irving says. However, these employees may, in turn, have “a little bit of difficulty putting on the brakes and thinking about long-term consequences.”

Other traits may become more apparent during social activities outside the office, including “being fun,” or having a “preference toward novelty and sensation seeking,” Dr. Irving says. She also notes to watch out for co-workers who display a high alcohol tolerance or an ability to drink large amounts without experiencing hangovers – which teach a person the consequences of drinking to excess, thus preventing this behaviour in the future.

While recognizing substance addiction in one’s organization can be hard, as an employer, learning how to handle it can be even trickier.

“I haven’t met, in all my 30 years of working with people, anybody with alcohol dependency, with a substance abuse disorder of any type, that when they walked into my office they didn’t know they had a problem,” Dr. Howatt said. “The challenge is knowing the solution.”

Both speakers agree that the length of time it takes to treat an addiction is one common frustration for employers supporting staff through the process. Dr. Irving estimates that between 40 and 60 per cent of patients undergoing treatment for addiction relapse at some point, and that the course of treatment may last longer than it would for other mental-health disorders, such as depression or anxiety.

“Because of the chronicity of alcohol use disorder, we understand that often people will require what’s called aftercare or ongoing support,” Dr. Irving says. “With the right support we can help people to course correct, and they can go on to be quite successful in their recovery.”

Dr. Irving also warns employers that those in treatment for addiction are most vulnerable to relapse during the first two months, and that many of the resources available to them, such as group and one-on-one therapy, take place during the day. Employers hoping to best support employees through the treatment process should be adaptable to these needs, giving staff flexibility in their schedule when necessary.

There are numerous other ways that employers can work to support employees undergoing treatment for addiction. One of the simplest is to reduce the peer pressure to consume alcohol at social events outside the workplace, which Dr. Irving says are “one of the most terrifying places for people who have recently stopped drinking or are trying to cut down.”

“Make sure you have a mix of events between dry and those that involve alcohol,” Dr. Irving suggests. “If you have an event where alcohol is being served, have other options and don’t have it just be water. There’s nothing worse than having to carry around a plastic bottle of water while other people are drinking out of a highball glass, and the stigma that people feel when that occurs.”

A preventative approach to handling addictions in the workplace is perhaps the most worthwhile, however, Dr. Howatt says. By helping employees recognize when their stress levels reach a dangerous threshold, employers can reduce their likelihood of developing compulsive behaviours as a coping mechanism. He suggests providing employees with “quick links and surveys” to self-assess their stress levels.

“Early intervention is better, if we can educate people about how to manage their stress better, and also have people understand stress and how they actually compensate,” Dr. Howatt says.

Dr. Howatt also urges employers to ensure that their staff are aware of the resources available to them for coping with high stress or substance-abuse issues, even before they present themselves.

“The wrong time to get this stuff is when you need it,” he says.

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