Business management

How to handle addiction in your workforce

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their background. UK SMART Recovery CEO Dr Charlie Orton shares her insight on how business owners can offer support.

This article was originally published on 29th September 2022. The article has since been updated on 30th March 2023.

Life is stressful, and people will behave in certain ways to manage their stress, says Dr Charlie Orton, Chief Executive of not-for-profit SMART Recovery, whose mission is to empower individuals to gain independence from addictive behaviour and lead fulfilling and balanced lives.

Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, food, shopping or gaming, people tend to reach out to one or more of these things to alleviate stress. 

“Stress doesn’t have to be rooted in previous trauma. It can be a single activating event in your life, like a redundancy, a demotion, a difficult appraisal, or an intimidating relationship at work,” says Charlie.

“At SMART Recovery we’re trying to normalise the conversation as much as possible. To help reduce the stigma and the myths surrounding addiction, and help people realise someone might be high performing or in a senior role in business and still be enacting behaviours that may not be very healthy for them or their loved ones.” 

What is an addiction?

SMART Recovery views addiction as a set of learned behaviours to alleviate feelings of discomfort or to block out difficult issues. Ask yourself if your behaviour is affecting your:

  • finances
  • relationships (with loved ones or colleagues)
  • hobbies
  • mental and physical health.

When do things become an addiction? This is a common question for specialists at SMART Recovery. If your behaviour is causing issues or harm, it may be time to take a step back, think about it, and then decide you want to change or to stop. 

What are the warning signs of addiction?

When life becomes unbalanced, that’s when problems tend to occur. “People in the workplace can experience unbalanced lives through working too much. Lots of people have heard that phrase ‘workaholic’. People can become addicted to pretty much anything,” says Charlie. 

Concerned about a colleague? Here are some things to look out for:

  • changes in their behaviour at work
  • change in their performance
  • not being quite themselves in a meeting
  • struggling to present themselves in the way they used to
  • having difficulty attending on time
  • looking particularly stressed
  • losing or gaining weight 

Natalie Nelson, Technical Advice Lead at Mentor, notes that addiction can affect people from all walks of life, so it’s important for managers to be mindful of the signs and to signpost the help that’s available. “Addiction can have serious consequences for both the individuals suffering and those around them.” she says. “If you are concerned about someone in a safety-critical role, you may need to consider moving them to another job while they obtain support.”

Covid-19 and the cost of living crunch

“The main thing the pandemic did was isolate everybody, and isolation leads to people wanting to alleviate boredom,” adds Charlie.

For example, between March 2020 and March 2021, surveys measuring self-reported alcohol consumption saw a 58.6% increase in the proportion of respondents drinking at increasing-risk and higher-risk levels (Monitoring alcohol consumption and harm during the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Health England, July 2021). 

Changes in alcohol consumption during the pandemic have left their mark, with some maybe drinking at different times of the day or night, during the week, not just weekends. There might be an urge to drink alcohol even while at work.

The cost of living crisis is also a trigger for many, says Charlie, with financial worries leaking into everyday lives. “You might think that would drive people to spend less, but it doesn’t. People feel the need to relieve stress and make themselves feel better. So they reach out to things like online gambling, substance use or alcohol.”

Understanding attitudes to addiction

It can be hard for colleagues to bring up a conversation around addiction, even those with HR responsibilities. 

A common misconception about addiction is that you can choose whether to use a substance or gamble. People with addiction can be seen as difficult, not contributing to society or work. The result is that society feels it doesn’t owe them much sympathy or empathy, says Charlie.

An important first step is to learn about addiction within the framework of people’s health and well-being. An employee with an addiction can be supported in the same way as if they were suffering from a physical illness.

How do you open a conversation about addiction?

When there are concerns about addictive behaviour, it can be hard to know where to start. The SMART Recovery approach is simply to ask an open question in a non-judgemental way. “Is everything OK?” rather than “You look terrible; what’s wrong with you?”

“If something is telling you things don’t seem quite right, I always advise people not to feel nervous about it, just check in with them,” says Charlie. 

People may feel more comfortable opening up about an alcohol or shopping addiction than discussing their use of illicit substances. Even then, that shouldn’t stop them being signposted to help and support.

What are the costs of addiction in the workplace?

According to a 2018 report by UK Addiction Treatment Centres, addiction can lead to:

  • decreased productivity
  • increased accidents and fatalities
  • increased absenteeism
  • damaged relationships
  • affected performance
  • needless risk-taking


The Hidden Cost of Substance Abuse in the UK also found that: 

  • 70% of substance abusers are in full-time employment
  • lost productivity due to alcohol costs the UK approximately £7.3bn a year
  • 17m working days are lost each year in the UK due to alcohol misuse
  • 15% of workers are drunk at work at least occasionally
  • 40% of industrial accidents are linked to substance abuse


Consider ways to get them the help they need. SMART Recovery has training programmes and short online courses for professionals, while many organisations offer general support. The mental health charity Mind, for example, has a list of useful contacts here. 

“It’s horrible to have an addiction,” says Charlie. “And it can be a daunting prospect to surface a conversation about it. But by offering signposting to support, having a recovery champion or addiction programme embedded in the business, and a trusted, non-judgemental environment that encourages people to act and get better, you’re doing a good job.”

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