When I started working at the Financial Times I struggled with anxiety and self-doubt. I felt bewildered, frustrated and rather miserable. I could not understand why I felt that way. Why this and why now? I went to a nearby counselling service. After a few sessions I saw one of my editors going into the same service. I was terrified of being seen as weak or defective. I never went back.
I soon resumed the tried and tested coping strategy that had worked for me in the past: opiates.
At first I only used heroin after work. That soon became only after lunch time, then only after breakfast. Soon I was using from the moment I woke up to the final nod of the night.
I would get up at 5.30am, have a hit of heroin as I listened to Radio 4, then catch up on the overnight Asian markets news. I would be at my desk at 7am to cover the UK financial reports, then the market open at 8am. After reporting the opening moves, I would have another hit in the disabled toilet in the basement to hold me for the rest of the morning. At lunchtime I would sneak off to the chemist for my daily methadone prescription.
I balanced the opiates out with dexamphetamine. I thought I had found a winning combination. I got front pages. I got a promotion. Work seemed to be going well.
This might not match your typical vision of an addict, but in fact more than 75 per cent of those with substance use disorders maintain employment.
But over 42 percent of these individuals reported experiencing a drop in productivity as a result of their substance use.
That was certainly my experience. Eventually my work began to suffer. I would disappear from my desk for long stretches to score, putting pressure on my colleagues.
I constructed an elaborate web of lies to conceal my addiction and protect my job. The FT did intervene with offers of support. They were aware I had an issue, but not of its nature. Part of me was desperate to tell the truth, but I was deeply ashamed and terrified of the stigma.
And so I kept striving to maintain my network of lies. This served neither myself nor my employer, putting us both at risk in a number of ways. (In other industries such as construction the risks of substance use at work are even more obvious. In the UK, about a quarter of work place accidents involve alcohol.)
I was given sick leave for “mental health” issues. I was supported upon my return.
But I was still terrified anyone would know the true nature of my issues. I felt like I was living a lie. I was using again before long and my employment soon came to an end by mutual consent.
I spent further time in treatment and I have now been clean a few years. I work in a rehab and I value being able to be open about my addiction and recovery at work.
I could not fault the FT for their support. Although by the time I accessed the support I was too far along the path of addiction to save my job.
Relapse rates are high and recovery can be a prolonged process fraught with setbacks. Addiction is without doubt a complex and potentially risky condition for employers to deal with.
But recovery is possible, and with the right support recovering addicts can be assets. Employers can help destigmatise substance misuse, improve awareness among HR and managers, tap into recovery networks and improve measures that prevent addiction developing in the first place .
Chris*, who works at a large financial institution, took a month off work to attend inpatient treatment for his alcoholism. Upon his return to work he remained sober and excelled.
“I was actually very lucky in that I had a line manager who had some form of experience with this and was massively supportive,” he says.
“My line manager knew and with the exception of a couple of close colleagues I told nobody else at work and it would definitely be detrimental to my career if I had done and I definitely wouldn’t have been given my current position running a finance team if my addiction problems had been widely broadcast.”
“I think all the workplace can do is ensure managers are trained in understanding this disease and recognising drivers for users.”
Paul Loftus, who used to run a building company in the UK and now runs an addiction treatment centre in Thailand, says there are industry-specific pressure points bosses need to be aware of.
“In the building trade, it’s really important to recognise the Friday afternoon club- it’s a danger zone for addicts. You need to leave earlier before they start talking about it. You need to be able to say that to your boss.”
“I had to sack one guy because he was working with glass on the 2nd floor above people and you could smell drink on him.”
“As a boss, if you’re reprimanding them, or you have to sack them, point them in the direction of the right resources. Or you can say, “Go away and get help, your job will still be here.”
“You invest a lot of time in people, so you want to stop yourself losing that person. It’s better if you can keep them instead of having to recruit someone else. Recruitment can cost a lot- it can sometimes even be more cost efficient to pay for treatment.”
The US Federal Aviation Administration operates a highly effective substance misuse treatment programme for pilots based on early identification of problems by peers and management.
The Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS) fosters a supportive, open environment that helps to preclude the secret maintenance of substance misuse problems which could have devastating consequences for airlines.
Support is ongoing for three years. Relapse rates among pilots are three times lower than among the general population. Since the 1970s, the programme has returned 6,000 pilots to the cockpit.
Although a programme of this scope seems a stretch for many industries, data shows that taking pre- emptive measures to ensure employees are covered for addiction treatment is cost effective.
US data indicates that investing in coverage for addiction treatment for employees reaps a yield of 23 per cent for employees with an annual salary of $45,000 or more, or 64 per cent for employees earning $60,000 or more.
Carola de Souza, a clinical counsellor who has worked closely with addiction, says there is a strong link between stress, mental ill health and substance abuse.
“As such, I think prevention is key and this includes creating a workplace atmosphere that allows employees to voice when they are struggling and/or in need of support or advocacy,” she says.
One aspect of prevention that is gaining traction is digital mental health services.
Uprise is an Australian mental health technology company for businesses and insurers. It provides digital services such as a regular one minute check-in to keep tabs on mental health, app-based training in emotional intelligence and stress-management skills as well as phone coaching.
Uprise founder Dr Jay Spence says it’s “a really chronic sense of comparing yourself to others that is driving most employees’ difficulties.”
“When we’ve done our analysis of what is affecting people, the vast majority is a process of comparing themselves to a standard that they don’t think that they’re meeting. We see this at all levels of management. It’s this universal thing- we sit there for most of the day feeling a bit like a fraud, and that’s it only a matter of time before people figure out that we’re not as good at our job as we think that we are. That’s the nuts and bolts of what stress is about.”
Companies using Uprise have seen a 40 per cent drop in unwanted absence, says Dr Spence.
“These things are so universal that there needs to be two things happening around mental health in workplaces.”
“One them is, workplaces have to work on destigmatisation by encouraging people to speak up about their mental health issues. What I mean by that is trying to get prominent, higher level people in the organisation who have successfully managed their mental health problems to start talking about it in order to show to other people: this is a top level leader that’s gone through something I relate to and successfully come out the other side.”
“And in the mean time you need these very private ways, like apps, for people to be able to access support, because the reality is, most people don’t want to go to therapy because they don’t want to be seen as having a problem significant enough to warrant therapy.”
Another potentially cost effective mechanism for ameliorating addiction in the workplace would be some form of peer support system.
Mark Simmonds is a marketing training consultant who recently wrote a book about his mental breakdown and recovery, Breakdown and Repair: A Father’s Tale of Stress and Success. He uses a scuba diving analogy to illustrate the best way to return to work following mental health struggles.
“You should emerge from the deep and dark place you have been to, slowly and safely, supported by those around you.”
“What you ideally need is a “dive buddy”, a companion who “has your back”, and who looks out for you as you begin to ascend from the murky depths.”
With about 22 million Americans in recovery from alcohol or drug problems, potential dive buddies are not exactly in short supply.
Jasper Burnham developed addiction issues with alcohol and cocaine while working in the music industry in the UK. He suggests that 12 Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous could be a source of dive buddies and addiction support that workplaces could access for free.
“It’s so important to break the stigma. 40 years ago cancer had a stigma attached to it and it was whispered about. Now people talk about it openly and supportively.”
“Having someone available you can talk to in the work place would be a way to do this. Employers could tap into the support of 12 Step fellowships. If I had the chance I would go and share my experience, strength and hope in the music industry.”
Substance misuse is no doubt a difficult issue for employers to deal with. But avoiding the issue creates the conditions for addiction to flourish. Cultivating an environment whereby those in recovery are able to speak out and those still struggling are encouraged to come forwards is a win-win situation for both employers and employees.
*This name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.