Employing former alcohol addicts – too risky?

Posted 12.01.2017

Only 16% of employers would hire someone who’s had an alcohol problem, according to a Drink Wise, Age Well report on older adults and the labour market. Shocking? Sadly, not really as it’s all part of a much larger problem of the stigma attached to addiction. I read another report by the team at Drink Wise, Age Well that showed 45% of people thought that those with alcohol problems only have themselves to blame. Clearly a lack of empathy here from ‘Joe Public’, but is it that surprising when you look at how addiction is presented?

Representation in films

So I’m watching a film and in the early part one of the characters is introduced as someone who has a “history of alcohol addiction”. I can pretty much guarantee, regardless of how long the character has been in recovery, that they will ‘fall off the wagon’ at some point during the film. They will then trigger an accident/lose their job/hurt their loved ones/become homeless/cause a fatality etc. etc. (delete as applicable). The only way the character can sort themselves out is if they anonymously go and talk it through with other addicts, while sitting in a plastic chair, drinking out of a plastic cup, in a bleak looking hall of some description.

I probably had a similar attitude to addiction before working at Sheffield Alcohol Support Service (SASS) – addicts can be nice people but they’re unreliable; it’s only a matter of time before they let me down and return to their old drinking ways. Boy was I wrong! At SASS we currently have 12 staff in addiction recovery and that’s just the ones I know about. I know….I can hear you now shouting that as a charity supporting people around alcohol addiction, it is only right that we give people a chance. But let me just give you a few stats about addiction and relapse:

  • It is estimated that 58% of people with an addiction make a full recovery – that’s over half that do not return to old habits
  • For those in early recovery (up to one year) the chance of relapse is quite high at 50-70%
  • Once someone is in stable recovery (5+ years) the likelihood of a relapse drops to around 15% – just for some context that’s no more at risk than the ‘general public’

The facts

In 2015 Sheffield Hallam University conducted a national survey of over 800 people in recovery to see what had happened in various areas of their lives since they had turned their lives around. Some of the most important changes were in the area of employment:

  • Around 75% were in steady employment • Around 75% exceeded expectations in performance reviews
  • Around 80% had improved their education or skills profile
  • Less than 5% regularly missed work

This shows a group of people who are committed and determined to make the most of the second chance that life has afforded them.

As an advocate for people in recovery it is tempting for me to reel off a long list of what makes someone in recovery a ‘better employee’ than someone who isn’t. Clearly in my own field they bring that lived experience that can add real value to the support of the charity. But the reality is they are no more passionate, reliable, intelligent, loyal than my other ‘non-recovery’ staff and that’s kind of the point! People who have a history of addiction are just people – they are no more a challenge to your organisation than any other employee. As with all staff, if they feel valued and supported then you’ll get the returns.

As in my film example, until alcohol recovery, not just alcohol addiction, becomes more visible people will continue to feel isolated and stigmatised. My advice is don’t hide from asking people about their recovery, they are often proud of how far they have moved on and happy to help you understand it. As long as this is done from a non-judgmental and supportive stance then it will remove the fear on your side and the stigma on theirs.

Josie Soutar, CEO, Sheffield Alcohol Support Service