The links between mental health and addiction at work

Published on December 3, 2021 by Gemma Hart

How could an employer support an employee with mental health and addiction issues? HR consultant Gemma Hart explores the overlaps between poor mental health and addiction and how workplaces can support affected employees.

There can be a distinct overlap between addiction and mental health in the workplace. Managing poor mental health or substance abuse is never easy for management or those involved; dealing with co-occurring conditions can make tackling either one much harder. However, it’s important business leaders are educated and take action to protect employees’ wellbeing when issues around addiction and mental health arise.

It’s vital that senior management are fully trained, able to identify at-risk team members, and have the tools to respond efficiently when a member of staff could be suffering from issues with addiction and poor mental health.

So, what is the connection between addiction and mental health for working professionals? Let’s take a closer look...

Employees struggling with co-occurring conditions

A co-occurring condition is when two conditions co-exist (this is also known as comorbidity). For instance, employees who struggle with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety at work can also be dealing with an addiction. Neither condition is caused by the other, but there can be situations in the office or in the employee’s personal life where symptoms of one may aggravate the other.

Both mental health conditions and addiction are categorized as chronic brain disorders and they can be caused by environmental factors, genetic influences, or a mixture of the two. In fact, research has shown that as much as 60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction is genetic.

Employees who have underlying mental health problems are more vulnerable to addiction, such as those with depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety. What’s more, studies suggest that women tend to be more susceptible to addiction than men.

Mental illness and substance abuse in the workplace

Mental illness and substance abuse in the workplace

When an employee with a mental illness is in a more rational state, they’re aware of how their condition affects them and the symptoms they experience. But such awareness can lead to a desire to overcome the condition in any way possible, and that can sometimes lead to the misuse of drugs or other substances to feel more in control – to manage their symptoms and self-medicate in and outside of the office.

Signs of addiction/poor mental health at work

Recognizing the symptoms of dual conditions in your employees can help identify the type of treatment needed to support them. Below are a few signs that an employee could have a substance abuse problem or that they are in the early stages of developing an addiction:

  • Sudden disengagement in conversations, tasks, and hobbies outside of the office
  • Consistently showing up to work late without a valid excuse
  • A disinterest in responsibilities that were once important to them and their career progression
  • Fatigue ​​or falling asleep at their desk
  • Changes in health, mood and behaviour

These are only a few signs that an employee could be struggling with a substance abuse problem or developing an addiction that requires further investigation, support and often treatment.

Likewise, if you’re aware of feelings within your team such as hopelessness, irritability and anger, or you’ve simply noted changes in an employee’s appetite in the break room, these could indicate signs of early mental health problems which need to be addressed with care and consideration for their wellbeing.

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Supporting employees with a dual diagnosis

An integrated approach is the best option for employees experiencing co-occurring disorders, tackling the symptoms of both simultaneously. To address and support employees seeking mental health treatment, provide support such as:

  • On-site counsellors
  • Internally (and external) confidential peer support
  • Lifestyle changes e.g. meditation classes, better sleep hygiene information, and gym membership to encourage exercise for your team

Substance abuse can be treated with the likes of providing information about local groups to help the employee maintain sobriety and providing information on where they can find and access behavioural therapy.

With both mental health and substance abuse issues, encouraging employees to seek medical advice is always the best decision. Experienced medical professionals are trained to help find the best treatment for the severity of your employees’ conditions.

Final thoughts

Employees dealing with poor mental health are more at risk of abusing substances to cope with their symptoms, and the side effects of addiction can bring on poor mental health such as depression and anxiety for employees.

Understanding the signs of co-occurring conditions within your company can help ensure that you are providing the right advice, support and guidance for all staff to improve wellbeing and encourage a happier and stable work environment.

Read more from the myhrtoolkit blog

Improving employee mental health at work

What are the mental health benefits of staff holidays?

Picture of Gemma Hart

Written by Gemma Hart

Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards connecting with a wider community and sharing her thoughts and advice on workplace wellness and engagement within companies.

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