The pandemic and coping with addiction in the workplace
The pandemic has exacerbated addiction and many employees are struggling
The pandemic lockdowns of 2020 were tough and tight, with the government clamping down on smoking and drinking. As a result, many people turned to other forms of substance abuse as a way of coping. Now, after a more than a year of remote working, employees are returning to the office with additional issues that were either not there before the pandemic, or made worse by it. According to Nicol Myburgh, Head: HCM Business Unit at CRS Technologies, this puts the company in a tough position.
“From a legal perspective, a company can’t enforce a rule if they don’t have it in the first place, so draft a policy around substance abuse that clearly outlines what the company stance is, and what its obligations are,” he advises. “You need to be mindful of how substance abuse can impact on other people as well as on safety, and the policy has to reflect all these elements. It has to make sense for the specific industry or vertical in which your company operates.”
The policy should unpack what the company defines as substance abuse and what happens if an employee is caught. In environments such as manufacturing where employees are required to operate heavy machinery, they could present a clear and present danger if they are intoxicated, but this wouldn’t necessarily be the case in the corporate environment.
Addiction is also now classified as a disease
“Addiction is also now classified as a disease, so it’s less of a discipline issue and more of an incapacity,” says Myburgh. “If someone has a disease or disability, there are obligations that have to be met from the employer’s side. They need to assist the employee reasonably if they have these issues and can only dismiss someone after a long list of steps has been followed.”
However, there are caveats. If an employee comes to the office under the influence and denies having a problem, then they don’t necessarily fall within the disease or disability framework – they are breaking the rules. You can then discipline them by carrying out the relevant processes, which could lead to a dismissal.
“It all comes down to a simple question – if a person admits to an addiction, then they are recognised as having a disease and are accorded the right levels of support; if they don’t, they can be disciplined,” concludes Myburgh. “Most people are inclined to not admit to being an addict which puts them in a precarious position. You should, however, keep in mind that when addiction is suspected it should still be considered in the actions that follow.”
To minimise the impact of addiction in the workplace, and to provide people with the right support, build a robust policy that outlines all the requirements and company expectations, and build in a plan to support employees who are struggling.