Under Your Nose.... Addiction at Work
By Conor Kenny ©
I have always had an interest in what we can’t see. The obvious is obvious but what lies beneath is often the origin of real intrigue, mystery and maybe motivation and - addiction. Understanding what is hidden is where revelation occur and where there is revelation there can be solutions. But, without knowing the problem, there is no hope of a solution, a better life and, in the case of this article, facing up to addiction.
Throughout my career, I have seen the impact first hand. Two super young men I worked with in the late 80’s ultimately lost their lives to alcohol addiction. In more recent years, a close lifelong friend revealed his own battles with alcohol and in all the years I have known him, I never once saw him even slightly tipsy.
Addiction is what lies beneath, the unseen, the hidden, and the slow inevitable decline, followed by the catastrophic final meltdown. For too long, Irish society has turned a blind eye and employers simply, or conveniently, moved people on.
Today, right now, as many as 8% to 10% of your staff could be actively suffering an addiction.
It is a frightening thought with devastating consequences and it is something that industry leaders need to grab hold of and start confronting, right now.
It’s under your nose and it is right beside you.
It’s one of those unpredictable Irish summer days. Blue skies are pushed aside by dark bull dog clouds. The skies fight back and after a short rainy battle, blue sky wins again.
I’m with Maebh Mullany, Chief Executive of The Rutland Centre who have been at the forefront of helping people overcome addiction for the last 40 years.
I have known Maebh from her days as a senior leisure centre manager in a busy hotel through to being Chief Executive of ALSAA the sporting and leisure complex opposite the airport and through to her appointment as Chief Executive of The Rutland.
A first class Masters graduate, it was easy to say “Maebh will go far all those years ago” and still, very young, that meteoric rise has many more mountains to scale.
At this point, I must also confess to a bias. At the beginning of this year, I was invited to join the board of The Rutland and it has been an eye opening journey and incredibly rewarding to learn from my fellow directors who are the classic good men and women who say little, seek no reward and devote their time, expertise and energy to helping people suffering from addiction to overcome this unspoken scourge.
They are doing God’s work.
Celebrating in Excess
“Ireland still suffers the stigma of addiction” says Mullany. “It is cultural and in our DNA. Ireland, as a brand, has associated itself with alcohol. It is everywhere. We cannot celebrate anything without the backdrop of alcohol. Picture the celebrating of a big sporting event, there’s alcohol. Picture a Stag night before marriage, there’s alcohol. Picture someone leaving work, there’s alcohol. It runs through every aspect of our lives and is everywhere. Whilst that’s fine for what we might call ‘normal’ drinkers, it is not fine for the 1 in 10 who are now perfectly camouflaged by how successfully we have made excessive drinking into celebration and acceptable”.
Moving the Herd
Naturally, culture has played a big part in the evolution of our attitude. And, to quote a beautiful image from my fellow Rutland board member, Gerry Kearney, “culture is that which keeps the herd roughly moving from east to west”.
If the culture is flawed then so is the behaviour.
The term ‘An Inconvenient Truth ‘comes from a 2006 American documentary film about former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming. Like Christopher Columbus before him, they thought he was mad.
Says Maebh Mullany “This is a conversation that has to be opened up. The stigma of addiction needs to be eliminated. In Ireland, for those suffering addiction, we have made it hard to ask for help. The first question a patient will ask is – ‘what are the implications if I ask for help?”
It’s a disarming, powerful and sad thought.
It is sad because it highlights failure, the failure of culture, the failure to successfully ‘keep the herd roughly moving from east to west’. It is denial and when we talk ‘full employment’ and you consider what 8% to 10% of that means then, as Mullany says “We must never forget this is a person we are talking about” and, like lakeshore ripples, this person quickly impacts family, friends, colleagues and more.
Spinning the Truth
Our language has not helped. Like spin doctors, we have created a whole dictionary of language that avoids reality and soft soaps the truth.
Our clichés downplay but inadvertently hint at the impending damburst.
“He’s fond of the drink”
“She’s well able to handle her drink”
“He loves the camaraderie in the bookies”
“She likes a good session”
“He says he only smokes a joint only at weekends”
“She loves her glass of wine after work”
Yes, of course, 90% can enjoy a bet, a drink or food but for one in every ten people, it is the enemy, it is a disease and it is powerful. Powerful in the destruction it will cause and powerful in how far it will reach.
When we think of addiction, we often think of alcohol. That’s a mistake.
At the Rutland, whilst alcohol is still the number one addiction but, as a society evolves, so too does addiction.
Today, according to Maebh, people are now presenting with more than one addiction. “It might be alcohol and gambling. It can be drugs and alcohol, pornography and drugs, food and drugs, food and alcohol. Addiction takes many forms and is not class based, profession based nor does it respect position or power. Addiction is often the manifestation and outcome of trauma, environment or childhood experience. At the Rutland, we start not with addiction but by asking what the underlying reasons that caused this. With 40 years’ experience, we understand the initial anxiety of entering into this new phase and our job is to do that in a kind, understanding way that makes it easy to understand themselves. The journey into addiction is different for everyone”
It is back to the clichés. Back to how we always pigeon holed the person as a vagrant, someone with a mental illness, a tramp or even a wino.
Nothing could be more wrong and, says Mullany “Addiction has to be taken seriously because it is only going to get worse. The culture of ‘It’s not my problem’ has to change because it is everybody’s problem, employers, family and friends. Abdication is not a solution”
“The reality is that the profile of our patients is 60% men 40% women with an average age of 42 and with third level education and employed”
Hardly the stereotype we were told to believe?
What Are We To Do?
As Mullany points out “One of the final line of defence is denial and then the realisation that they might lose their job. Without the job, there is a problem. With a job, there is no problem”. Often, when the dawn breaks, the damage is already done.
Like every article, we remember very little. I asked Maebh what she would like to say and advise hospitality managers and leaders to do if there were just four or five simple ‘must do’ actions.
Remember, Maebh worked in hospitality and is well aware of this problem first hand. Also, unlike some professions, hospitality is, according to Mullany “Much more stressful, not well paid and very demanding with high customer expectations, conflict and anti-social hours. It is fertile ground for addiction and that addiction and substance abuse which inevitably leads to some colossal errors of judgement with a long lasting impact, effect and memory”
Combining her deep understanding of the hospitality business with a career utterly immersed in the Rutland today, Maebh gives careful and considered thought to her 5 action points for those who can lead change, culture, outcomes and begin to move away from denial into positive action.
As ever, Maebh cannot but reflect who she is in distilling a huge subject into such a short piece, she combines steel with compassion and strategy with reality.
Seamlessly, the mix appears and not in any particular order:
1) Create a culture where there is an awareness of addiction and make sure you create and encourage an environment where it is safe to ask for help. Encourage this into a new culture rather than wait for a crisis to emerge.
2) Get to understand addiction and the signs of addiction but don’t be an amateur expert. Ask addiction specialists to come to you, talk to your staff and move from you think you know what to do to you know what to do.
3) Focus on the brutal reality of addiction and don’t try to disguise it in clichés such as “it’s the norm” “It’s just their lifestyle”.
4) Ask yourself if you have a detailed, current and informed understanding and policy to deal with addiction in the workplace. If you don’t, get your house in order, fast.
5) Risk assess your business. This is vital, practical and a gap in many businesses. If there’s a gap, there’s a risk. For example, who is driving for you? Who is operating machinery or even using sharp knives? Who has access to money? Who has access to children? Who is handling vulnerable adults?
Naturally, this is neither a definitive or comprehensive prescriptive list. It is not meant to be. Its purpose is to prompt you to ask the question. Have you assed these risks? What would you add to it? Perhaps, more importantly, what are you going to do now that you have read this?
Silent but Deadly
Denial is a big part of addiction. It is also ingrained in our culture from a bygone era where ‘Grow up and stop your whinging’ informed us that showing weaknesses was failure. As Mullany points out “Addiction is not a moral failure”
If, as a country, we continue to call ourselves leading reformers, liberal and progressive then we can’t be selective or pick out mass movement causes that will secure votes. Inevitably, doing the right thing will never be the easy thing. Confronting addiction is still an inconvenient Irish truth and easy to dismiss.
Sadly, like all these things, it is only when addiction sneaks silently into your life that people begin to respond and understand the devastation that occurs.
In my own work in the hospitality sector, I have witnessed gambling, drug and alcohol addiction. What was frightening was realising that these people were in positions of power yet their judgement was inevitably skewed by substance or thoughts. I witnessed those monstrous errors of judgement. When I look back at those that were and even are still affected, the tragic reality is that it is only time before things get worse and only time before the certainty of devastation brings everything into the grim clutches of an inevitable dead end. Denial can be intoxicating.
With 40 years’ experience of confronting and treating addiction, the good news is that addiction can be successfully treated and good employees, when supported through this phase of their lives, inevitably become outstanding employees.
In the same way, the most successful people almost always have a story of failure that ultimately propelled them to success and isn’t that what we mean by ‘success lies on the far side of failure’?
There are only two things that need to happen for the recovery to start. First, the sufferer must unchain themselves from the grip of denial and second, the employer, friend or supporter must welcome them into a safe place and help them find a new path that releases them from the hopeless, silent darkness.
Choices, Right Now
In life, we make many decisions every day. Some good, some bad, most without necessarily affecting anyone else.
Like me, you may not have been aware that one in every ten people around you is suffering actively with an addiction, right now. You mightn’t see it, sense it or even believe it but, in itself, that is part of the sorcery of addiction, the ability to blend in to the undergrowth.
You have a choice. You can deny it, pass it off and say ‘I’m alright Jack’ but that’s not a solution. Or, you can read the 5 points Maebh Leahy wants you to think about again and you can begin to make something happen.
The choice is yours …. Unlike the victim of an addiction