How to combat workplace burnout and addiction with empathy and resilience

Only when employees feel comfortable enough to have conversations about taboo topics such as substance misuse will they seek the help they need. (Photo: Shutterstock)

According to the 2022 Global Wellness Trends Report: The Future of Wellness 2022, COVID has dramatically changed consumer expectations of the wellness industry. Published by the Global Wellness Summit, this provocative report reveals wellness is “shifting from a feel-good luxury to survivalism as people seek resilience.”

The American Psychological Association defines helping professions as “occupations that provide health and education services to individuals and groups in psychology, psychiatry, counseling, medicine, nursing, social work, physical and occupational therapy, teaching, and education.” While not listed, HR also falls into this helping category. says individuals working “in HR specialize in serving the employees of a company and helping develop their growth and fulfillment in the workplace…so they can be their best selves in the workplace.”

Related: Infographic: What’s driving workers’ stress?

Cheryl Brown-MerriwetherCheryl Brown-Merriwether is vice president and executive director for the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE). She oversees and directs the administration, operations, and student support services for ICARE’s three divisions, Strategic Sobriety Workforce Solutions, International Association of Professional Recovery Coaches (IAPRC) and NET Institute.

Oddly, wellness practitioners are also not listed as helping professionals. However, the article “Wellness in the Helping Professions: Historical Overview, Wellness Models, and Current Trends” published in the September 2020 Journal of Wellness makes the following call to action: “We suggest helping professionals refocus their practice to include wellness and integrate such practices into their daily routine to combat compassion fatigue and/or burnout (which are common occurrences among helpers).”

Employees burn out

Case in point: Tiffany Swedeen, a registered nurse, instructor, and certified professional recovery coach, is also in long term clinical recovery from alcohol and opioid addiction. Tiffany worked in an intensive care unit in a West Coast hospital, which was among the first to be impacted by the pandemic. She now speaks and writes about her experience as an essential worker during this extraordinarily stressful time.

Tiffany’s lived experience as a survivor of the disease of addiction, strengthened her personal resilience and enabled her to help not only herself, but others struggling to survive what she referred to as the “gruesome year.”

In addition to being helping professionals, teachers, nurses, HR and wellness practitioners share another common characteristic: Burnout. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or negative feelings towards one’s career and reduced professional productivity.

When asked about nurse burnout during the pandemic, Tiffany referenced a 2017 pre-pandemic study published by Kronos in which four out of five nurses reported workplace fatigue. Tiffany added “job burnout is important in this conversation because it is extremely prevalent and one of the major consequences of it is substance use disorder. The two most tragic consequences of job burnout are addiction to substances and suicide.”

SHRM (The Society for Human Resource Management) recently reported that “burnout and exhaustion are widespread in HR, with 42% of teams struggling under the weight of too many projects and responsibilities.” The article also reported that a March 2021 survey found more than 40% of US employees felt burned out from their work. This finding was further supported by a July 2021 survey conducted by The Hartford finding 61% of US workers experiencing burnout. It is estimated we spend approximately one-third or 30% of our lives working, which equates to 25 to 30 years.

The data also supports Tiffany’s comment that burnout creates a cycle of addiction. The American Psychological Association refers to addiction as the pandemic within the pandemic. As many as one in four remote workers have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. SAMHSA’s annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported in 2020 more than 40 million Americans are living with a substance use disorder. This is alarming as more than 70% of illicit drug users are employed full- or part-time.

Quelling workplace burnout

Workplace burnout and addiction is a chronic pairing that will not resolve itself. The stress that leads to burnout and ultimately substance misuse and addiction must be recognized and alleviated. As a preventive measure, HR, EAP/benefits service providers and wellness practitioners must collaborate to create a culture of safety in the workplace. Only when employees feel comfortable enough to have conversations about taboo topics such as substance misuse will they seek the help they need.

Establishing a person-centered focus on mental and behavioral health, substance misuse, addiction and recovery within the workplace is key. To nurture this kind of culture requires corporate wellness plans that intentionally address the wellbeing of the employee as a human being first, then as an employee.

The creation of a person-centered workplace culture requires disruption of the corporate status quo. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Your Office Is Open and the Liquor Is Flowing,” mentioned employers are using alcohol to entice employees to return to work. This approach poses many risks to individuals and employers and may do more harm than good.

Beyond basic liability and risk management concerns, many employees are not motivated by the lure of mid-day happy hours. A 2020 Pew Research study reports 60% of US adults consume alcohol, down from a high of 67% in 2010. The continuing decline in people who consume alcohol can be attributed to several things. 21 million individuals in the US are in recovery, have health issues, religious views or other considerations that influence their decision to abstain from alcohol or other substances.

Getting sober curious

The decline can also be attributed to the “sober curious” movement, which began in 2016 with the publication of a book written by Ruby Warrington. The growing popularity of “Dry January” and “Sober September” activities and the rise of non-alcoholic mocktails can be traced back to this book, which encourages people to be mindful and intentional as they explore their relationship with alcohol and substances.

Role of DEI

Companies seeking innovative solutions to move toward a person-centered workplace culture relating to alcohol and substance misuse can do so safely and proactively by expanding current wellness, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. Such initiatives offer an enhancement ot alternative to pre-employment drug screening, and other interventions normally used post-accident/incident, or when there is reasonable suspicion of intoxication at work.

These traditional HR responses to substance misuse and addiction in the workplace are primarily reactive, except for pre-employment drug screening, a practice increasingly waived by companies not required to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act. This trend can be attributed, in part, to the ever-expanding legalization of marijuana, and the difficulty of filling open positions.

To accomplish their DE&I goals, many companies have already established Employee Resource, Affinity, or Equity Groups, which are company-sanctioned and employee-led. Such groups can be expanded and used as a channel through which the voices of individuals whose lives have been impacted by mental, behavioral health, substance misuse, addiction, or recovery, can be heard.

In addition, a Pew Research study reports almost half of US adults who have not personally struggled with substance misuse or addiction, have family members, friends, co-workers, or other acquaintances who struggled with these issues. Given that many of these individuals are employed, these employees could benefit from this new type of support group as well.

The list of companies adopting such programs continues to increase nationwide. One of the most notable is SalesForce, whose CEO, Marc Benioff, banned office drinking and who wrote in a company-wide memo that “alcohol is a drug” and that it’s “unfair” for nondrinkers to see alcohol at work.

Creating an empathetic workplace

An empathetic workplace culture identifies and engages employees who have lived experience as partners in creating a person-centered workplace culture. This facilitates tackling the uncomfortable topic of substance misuse and addiction.

The 2021 State of Workplace Empathy study conducted by BusinessSolvers reported more than 90% of employees, HR professionals and CEOs consider empathy important. And 90% of Gen Z employees are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer. Clearly younger employees are seeking to work with companies embracing person-centered empathetic workplace cultures in place to support their overall health and well-being.

The value of creating and sustaining an empathetic workplace culture was further supported by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of SHRM during the 2020 State of the Society meeting. At that time, Taylor challenged HR managers to “do something to reverse the empathy deficit in the workplace. Being empathetic can be as simple as a manager showing compassion for personal loss, cheering on personal achievements, watching for signs of overwork and showing a sincere interest in the people they supervise.”

Evidence is mounting that fostering a people-centered culture is vital to creating and sustaining a healthy and prosperous workplace. In our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, companies must embrace innovative ways to become more resilient and empathetic to the needs of their employees, their most valuable asset.

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