A hidden pitfall of hybrid working: how employers can mitigate addiction risks in the workplace
Published on 19th Apr 2023
Modern flexible working can have numerous benefits, but employers should be alert to potential issues
In workplaces across myriad industries, hybrid working arrangements are now commonplace. An overwhelming number of employees are suggesting that they value this increased flexibility in their working arrangements over most other benefits, even including increased pay.
Modern flexible working, which often combines remote work and on-site work, can have numerous benefits for employers; workforce productivity may be improved and employees with increased flexibility and autonomy can have better mental health due to reduced stress. An expanded talent pool enables employers to hire talent from anywhere in the world, rather than being limited to a commutable distance, and there can also be an increased retention rate, given the importance attached to flexibility when choosing where to work.
There are, however, mental health consequences associated with ongoing home working. We are seeing an increase in the number of our clients managing mental health-related issues in their workforce arising from this "new normal". Too much home working can be isolating, and a lack of real human interaction can be a cause of stress which compounds any already ongoing work-related pressures. The blurred boundaries between work and personal life when working from home can often exacerbate mental health difficulties, including for those who struggle with addiction.
Link between home working and a rise in addictions
A notable, associated issue is the sharp uptick of employees who are struggling with addiction, whether for the first time or having relapsed. Mental health has, in some cases, been negatively impacted by sustained periods of home working and coupled with the anxiety and stress created by the current cost of living crisis is resulting in many more employers needing to support employees with various addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling) as well as other mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and compulsive disorders.
Addictions often lead to performance, conduct and absenteeism issues, and are often worsened by the increased isolation and lack of formal structure associated with hybrid or home working arrangements. Increased isolation can be a trigger for some people to act on their addiction and working from home can result in reduced social pressure on those with an addiction who are more readily able to act on their addiction during working hours without the accountability which would have been present when working alongside others in person. That said, the impact of working from home on an addict can be complex and will vary from person to person; some may have reduced stress from their new flexible working arrangements, which in turn may have the opposite effect, so it is important for employers to be alert to these complex issues as they arise.
Some addictions will be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, but certain addictions are explicitly excluded from the Act's definition of disability, in particular in relation to non-prescription-related substance addiction (including alcohol and nicotine). However, dependencies such as these can sometimes cause a disability, for example, kidney failure, or be the result of a disability such as a mental health condition.
If an employer suspects that an employee's addiction could constitute a disability, or be connected to one, then this raises additional considerations around making reasonable adjustments as well as ensuring the employee is not treated less favourably as a result of their disability or conduct or performance arising as result of it. It is important for employers to treat any actual or suspected addictions sensitively and to offer support to employees whether or not they attract the protection of the Equality Act; a supportive culture will encourage employees to more readily seek help and in turn enable any negative impact on the employees' work to be addressed at an earlier stage.
What steps can employers take to support employees struggling with addictions?
As well as taking a careful and considerate approach to employees who may be struggling with addiction, it is important for employers to have a comprehensive policy in place covering relevant addictions (for example a drug and alcohol policy), which outlines expectations around the use of relevant substances both in the workplace and while working remotely.
It can be helpful to make provision for education to all employees about addiction and available support services, to reduce the stigma associated with it and encourage employees to be transparent if help is needed. Encouraging days in the office or face-to-face interaction via video calls to check in with employees is also recommended.
Good performance management with clear expectations, goals and deadlines will help to identify when an employee might have an addiction that is affecting their work, particularly where you have noticed a sudden change in performance or behaviour.
Where an addiction is identified or suspected, employers should encourage the employee to seek assistance through any Employee Assistance Programme, or private health insurance; these services can provide confidential access to counselling or other support services which can have a meaningful impact on an employee's recovery and employees are often more willing to seek help from professionals outside of their workplace. That being said, line managers also have a key role to play in supporting employees with addictions and are often best placed to see the initial signs that an employee may be struggling.
It is important for employers to notify managers of the fact that they should monitor performance with an awareness and understanding of the warning signs of addiction and that they know how to act on any concerns appropriately and sensitively. The first step for a manager concerned about an employee is to raise this with HR who can provide guidance on how to handle a situation appropriately. Having been advised, a line manager can then support the employee with compassion and empathy, and signpost all the help available both externally and internally.
It seems likely that the number of employees battling addictions will continue to rise in the foreseeable future so it is important for employers to spot the signs and offer support at the earliest opportunity; doing so can only have a positive effect on productivity, absence rates and employee morale and greatly reduces the risk of any associated legal claims.