How to help employees struggling with addiction

February 2023

Content Warning

This report touches on sensitive topics such as addictions to gambling, sex, tobacco, and various other substances. If you’re in recovery, or can’t handle reading this, please leave it and come back to it later, or speak to your line manager if you need support. You can also access help for various issues at the end of this report in the signposting and help section.


Addiction is an incredibly taboo topic – it’s one that has been vilified by governments worldwide via various ‘wars on drugs’ and in the stereotypes of furtive, shameful habits and secrecy. While that image may reflect what many have been through, it’s important to understand that addiction can impact anyone of any social ‘status’, job role, intelligence level and personality type.

In fact, just taking into account only one type of addiction – drug use disorders – the US National Institute of Health reports that 10% of adults in the US suffer a drug disorder at some point in their life.

The cost to the UK of alcohol and drug addiction (to the level that interferes with daily life) is estimated by the government to be an outrageous £21.5 billion for drugs, with the alcohol cost at about £10.7 billion.

And in addiction to gambling, the rise in numbers in the past few years (the number of those referred for treatment in 2022 rose by 16.9%, according to NHS figures) has meant that the NHS has had to open two new clinics last year, just for the treatment of this addiction.

While the causes of addiction are for psychologists and medical doctors to diagnose and treat, it can cause a huge strain on the workplace, on friendships and family relationships. With so much of the UK’s workforce now working mostly remotely, it can be difficult to spot – and if it’s hard to spot, is it something HRDs can effectively help with? A heavy question.

For now, the aim of this report is to dispel some of the myths about addiction and to compile the experience and wisdom of leaders on how to support our employees at all levels if they’re struggling with this.

Harriet Hunter, a retired addiction counsellor, sums up HR’s delicate balancing act perfectly: “There has been and continues to be an acute substance use disorder issue that bleeds into the workplace,” she says. “COVID-19, together with accessibility issues of working at home, have been the perfect breeding ground for chronic dependence behaviours in and out of the workplace.”

In particular, all of our experts have noted one thing: that there is still a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding addiction. That ‘disgrace’ carries with it social shame and the aspect of the taboo, which in turn leads to furtive behaviour and hiding the addiction, making reaching out for support all the tougher.

“Once the employee sets foot in the workplace, management’s ability to ask questions and discuss enforceable consequences, regardless of the employee’s action, carries a delicate weight: often making the difference between not just hard feelings, but also potential litigation,” Hunter explains.

“Rehearsing, interviewing and ferreting out the right questions becomes paramount in determining the exact cause of the employee’s tardiness, absence, and overall behaviour,” she concludes.

That’s why to create a safe environment, both personally and professionally, it’s important to educate yourself on addiction. Doing so can create more understanding and empathy, while also providing you with the right tools to help someone who is struggling with addiction. And that’s where this report comes in.

Meet our Experts


Peter M. Vernig

VP of Clinical Services,
Recovery Centers of America

Dr. Hana Patel
Medical GP and Counsellor

James Hartley
Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Dr. Bertrina Olivia West Al-Mahdi Ph.D.
Psychologist and the Founder of
Out of the Box Counselling


Kevin Cataldi
CEO of Renaissance Recovery

Victoria Roe Dos Santos
Senior Group Risk Consultant
at Buck

Bobbi Kloss
HR Advisor

Annie Gale
Head of RAW Talent
and Apprenticeships at COOK

Christopher Paul Jones
Counsellor and Phobia Expert

Harriet Hunter
Retired Addiction Counsellor

Taking a receptive stance means that we try to suspend our judgments of them at that moment and listen to their concerns with an empathetic ear.

What is addiction?

“Anything in our lives that we have no control over doing, taking or using to the point where it impacts our day-to-day activities and happiness”, is a loose but workable definition of addiction. And it’s important to note that habitual use of something – even if it’s something we disapprove of, or that carries social stigma with it – is different from addiction.

To understand addiction, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the relationship I have to an activity? Am I lost without it? Is it ultimately harming myself and others in the long term?”

Counsellor and phobia expert Christopher Paul Jones says addictions can often be coping mechanisms. “In order to cope, we often turn to other things, mainly to attempt to change the way we’re feeling. This can be through drink, gambling, illegal or prescription drugs, sex, shopping, nicotine, caffeine and even time spent on social media.”

Counsellor and psychotherapist James Hartley has spent more than 3,000 hours treating addicted people, including work for the NHS. He shares that the most important thing to remember is that addiction itself is incredibly complex, and that even experts aren’t sure how to classify it.

“As a therapist, I try to help people view addiction as a dependence on something which is soothing in some way for them that ultimately, can have harmful consequences for them and their life around them,” he explains. “Anything that we depend upon can turn into an addiction, so it doesn't matter if it is alcohol, drugs, sex, another person, buying t-shirts, collecting stamps, exercising, doing yoga or meditation.”

As Hartley shares, just about anything that a human can obsess over can form an addiction, including things viewed as traditionally good for us, such as eating healthy food, passion for our job, exercising, etc. What we’re concerned about primarily in this report, though, are the areas where the addiction is interfering with our happiness and/or causing issues at work.

While once upon a time, the approach was one of “all or nothing”, with invocations to a deity, 12-step programmes in a community centre and often intimidating group meetings; we now know that the reasons for addiction are myriad and that treatments for it often need to extend to treating the core issues, not simply just zoning in on the relationship to the addictive item in question.

One of the most startling realisations, in fact, is that often, addiction is merely the unhappy by-product of deeper, debilitating issues.

“Looking from the outside, addiction may be seen as a weakness and lack of grit,” says Hartley. “We have to understand that it is often a way of coping a person has found to difficult circumstances in life which they have yet to learn alternate and less harmful ways to cope. For example, alcohol use to cope with social anxiety.”

He continues: “Secrecy and shame go hand-in-hand with addiction. Often people know they have a problem and try desperately to stop, but because they cannot connect with alternatives, and are disconnected from support sources, they feel an outcast, weak, and shameful. All emotions which are distressing and – since they lack alternatives to self-soothing distress – are all reasons to continue self-soothing via the addiction.

Consider allowing someone time off to get expert help, as often the cost of recruiting and training a new employee may be more than the cost of time off.

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