Coping with change: drugs, alcohol and future – proofing the post-lockdown workplace

April 1, 2021

With the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination programme helping the country lay the foundations for life after coronavirus, workplaces must play their part in helping employees look ahead with confidence. To that end, John Devitt, chief executive at Gateshead-based specialist drug, alcohol and mental health services provider Recovery4Life, says businesses must ensure robust frameworks are in place to support people’s health and wellbeing post-pandemic. Steven Hugill finds out more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done many things to society, not least radically alter the environment in which we all live and work.

It has also had a similarly seismic effect on each and every one of us as people too.

And, as lockdown restrictions ease, and we begin to re-engage with the so-called new normality, our experiences over the past year will impact on how we navigate the post-lockdown workplace.

For the North East, its people and, just as importantly, its employers, this period should be a watershed moment for meaningful change, says John Devitt, chief executive at Gateshead-based specialist drug, alcohol and mental health services provider Recovery4Life.

Prior to the pandemic, the North East had some of the worst health inequalities in the UK.

With the highest use of prescribed painkillers, problematic alcohol and drug usage and the highest suicide rates in the UK, the North East wasn’t on a level playing field to start with.

With such a landscape having only been exacerbated by COVID-19, John says a more pragmatic approach to these, and associated issues, will be fundamental in the months ahead.

He says: “We need to redefine what COVID-19 – and the issues people are going through as a result – mean for the workplace.”

Employers, he adds, will be critical to re-building a post-lockdown society, with their understanding around the importance of workers’ health and wellbeing matched by the implementation of malleable policies that can shift to issues caused by coronavirus.

John continues: “In many ways, managing fear has been the biggest challenge throughout the pandemic.

“As humans, we are hard-wired to respond to fear and threat in five ways: fight, flight, flop, freeze or we try to make friends/distract the threat.

“None of these responses work with a virus, though.

“Fear of the unknown and the very real risk of death is shifting to people worrying about secure employment, how to pay mortgages and feed their families, particularly given the impact of furlough and job losses caused by the pandemic.

“What people do is internalise things and go to what gives them comfort or escape – you only have to look at our expanding waistlines to see how eating comfort foods like chocolate or the impact of home baking and the huge increase in alcohol sales for home consumption have had.

“We go to what we know when we are in crisis – and if people get respite through painkillers or escape through cannabis, cocaine and alcohol, they will do so. It all adds to a pressure keg that just builds and builds.

“We are coming to the point where things will begin opening up again after lockdown, and it will take time to adjust to a world that has been in a state of hibernation for a year.

John continues: “The feeling for many, as things open up again, will very much be like the pain you get when you clench your fist harder and harder before letting go. You feel the pain as the tension eases.

“That is what returning to ‘normality’ is going to be like for a lot of people – and this poses a number of challenges for employers going forward.”

With that in mind, John – whose company Recovery4Life provides a full range of risk management services such as COVID-19 testing from its Gateshead headquarters and a site at Teesside International Airport – says businesses have a key role to play in navigating the roadmap that will ultimately take society out of the pandemic.

He says: “And that is why, as staff return to the workplace, companies need to take the time – if they haven’t already done so – to review their policies around alcohol and drugs and align them to their health and wellbeing priorities and occupational health requirements going forward.

“This is not about being ‘nice’ or turning a blind eye to substance misuse in the workplace – it is recognising the most cost-effective way of managing safety risks in the workplace is to engage with your people.

“Since January, we have seen a significant increase in employees asking their employers for help with different issues and more people failing drug tests.

“Whether by design or necessity, we have seen more employers wanting to look at other ways of managing substance misuse other than just sacking people.

“Quite often it is skilled and semi-skilled men in their 30s, 40s and 50s in the engineering, manufacturing and construction sectors that are asking for help and/ or failing drug tests – often in supervisory positions with long service and skill-sets that can’t easily be replaced.

“Having a rigorous testing regime and an effective support structure in place will really help people who might be struggling to come forward and get the help they need without compromising an employer – and it doesn’t need to cost the earth.

John adds: “It is imperative such measures are woven into ongoing support across other areas, such as mental health, as people will be grieving for loved ones lost during the pandemic, and long-COVID-19 health conditions.

“And as we move forwards out of this pandemic, it is imperative the workplace recognises its role in helping people live better lives.”

For a free alcohol and drug policy review, or to speak confidentially about specific cases and to ask advice on issues, call John on 03333 448 288

Three things every business should do now

• Review health, safety and wellbeing policies and see if they meet the challenges of the post- COVID-19 world
• Revise and re-issue drug and alcohol policies to teams and offer help to those who might be struggling
• Review occupational health provision. If it is not fit for purpose, now is the time to change and find a provider who will work with you to address the new challenges to workplace health

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