Blog Post

Showing empathy for people at work fighting addiction

Cornerstone Editors

Addiction can be a tough issue to talk about – and it might feel even more awkward to address at work. But people suffering from addiction are not exempt from dealing with these issues during their workday. Whether they’re experiencing addiction themselves or dealing with a loved one struggling, the stress can be overwhelming, and the stigma is paralyzing.

It’s more common than you may think: According to the National Safety Council, at least 30 US states reported COVID-19-related spikes in opioid use and heightened concern about mental health and substance use disorders. Also, lost productivity due to alcohol use costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually. If there’s ever been a time to address addiction at work, it’s now.

Creating a safe workplace where people feel comfortable sharing their truth and expressing their feelings will help foster an inclusive environment. As managers and coworkers, we observe the behaviors of those we work with daily and may be among the first to notice changes in someone. Offering an ear to listen and resources for support may save someone’s life.

Nurturing an inclusive environment

There are some simple practices employees can put into place to nurture an inclusive culture and help open lines of communication on complex topics like addiction. They include:

  • Connecting with colleagues regularly and casually (e.g., coffee chats)
  • Establishing inclusive communication practices and cultural norms (e.g., after-work socialization options that don’t include alcohol)
  • Intervening in response to microaggressions, even as a bystander (e.g., addressing an eye roll in response to someone saying they don’t drink during a networking event)

As a manager, consider hosting an open and honest discussion on addiction. Addressing challenging topics, like addiction, with team members encourages healthy and productive dialogue. It creates trust and allows people to come forward and ask for help if they need it. (However, if you sense that someone is struggling with addiction, they should consult with a qualified professional, like a psychologist or mental health counselor with expertise in this area.) Before you do bring up the roundtable with your team, ask yourself:

  • Does my team feel psychologically safe?
  • Do I have one-on-one meetings with each team member regularly?
  • Have I talked to human resources about discussing addiction with my team?
  • Do all team members know where they can find diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) resources and other support the organization offers?

Managers set the tone for employees to feel comfortable expressing their opinions and thoughts, even if they seem uncommon or taboo. For the conversation to have a positive outcome, employees must commit to being respectful of others’ feelings, come to the discussion with an open mind, allow everyone a chance to share their thoughts, and understand they don’t have to discuss anything they don’t want to.

Hosting a program about addiction

It might seem like the responsibility of the organization at large or its executives to address addiction at work. (You may want the support and approval from your human resources department.) Change happens, and employees find comfort when DEIB is practiced at all levels. Consider these questions while planning your program:

  • What is the goal of the program? (e.g., pointing to new addiction resources)
  • What is the program? (e.g., inviting storytelling by team members)
  • What resources are needed for the program? (e.g., questions as conversations starters)
  • How does the team feel about the program you’ve planned, and should you make any adjustments?
  • How will you measure the success of the program? (e.g., one-on-one discussions after the program)
  • How can the program be expanded to address other DEIB topics? (e.g., if you’re hosting a book club as your program, pick new topics every month or quarter)

When people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, they feel accepted and, therefore, more comfortable bringing new ideas to the table. They are often more driven because they feel believed in. Making everyone feel heard goes a long way to strengthening organizational culture and team rapport.

For more information about how to host programs on important DEIB topics, like addiction, see Cornerstone OnDemand’s A Seat at the Table series of resources.

This award-winning original learning series takes a conversational approach by contextualizing the lived experience of others. This is important for diversity training because it requires a more holistic, interconnected, and intimate approach. The resources include guides for employees and managers, video sample programs and other supporting materials to help host these meaningful roundtable discussions. They are available on Cornerstone’s Content Anytime learning platform.

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