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White powders and workplaces

Working with all kinds of people, we spot issues and trends as they rise and fall. One thing we’ve seen increase is conversations about people using cocaine.

The clichéd views are that it’s everywhere, it’s becoming more and more acceptable and it’s just another option for people who want to have fun. In reality, it’s pretty easily available but depending on how much people use it – like any addictive drug really and including alcohol – it can cause problems.

Over the last two years, we’ve been involved in many issues around cocaine. All kinds of people in all kinds of companies – different ages and different locations. People using the white stuff in their own time, at work events and even in the office.

We’re pretty worldly people and definitely don’t have an automatic “drugs are bad” reaction to discussions about these issues. But we have come across:
• People with serious financial problems caused by their coke use
• Managers losing sight: letting people “party” at work events or in the office and forgetting that it’s technically illegal and – if people fall out with you – could potentially lead to tricky conversations with the police.

A sprinkling of white powder all around

Here’s a quick reality check: Brighton has so many people who worry about their cocaine use that there are Cocaine Anonymous meetings available every day and on most days there are 2 to 4 meetings on offer. Crawley also has daily CA meetings and there are regular meetings available in Worthing, Shoreham, Horsham, Eastbourne and Peacehaven. It’s similar in neighbouring counties.

Anyone who goes for the first time – and I’m basing this on people we’ve spoken with – is usually at a turning point, especially if things are getting out of their control and their financial situation is becoming a nightmare. Cocaine is a very expensive habit, after all. One of the many things they share consistently is the wide range of people at the meetings: pick any type of person and someone like that will be at a CA meeting.

Here’s where you can find out more: http://www.sussexcocaineanonymous.co.uk/

And if you’re reading this because cocaine’s becoming a problem for you: don’t panic – there are people who can help, in all kinds of ways.

So what about the workplace?

Employers and managers frequently get bogged down overthinking and wondering what, if anything, they should do if they suspect someone’s a heavy coke user. Here are quick questions to ask yourself:
• Is it anything to do with work? Eg is the employee’s drug use causing you problems?
• Are you trying to beat them up or offer help?

What usually happens is that people are aware but only do anything – including talking about it – when things hit a crisis point. That might be when the employee’s slipped from a functioning coke user to out of control in some way: when juggling work, drug use and financing it slips and there’s a problem. Nobody plans to lose control: coke’s addictive and expensive, which leads to a downward spiral for some people. We’ve spoken with people who owe thousands of pounds to dealers, as well as friends and family.

If it’s a problem at work, it’s usually because they’re rowing with people (perhaps because of mood swings), not coming into work, failing to get things done or – which we’ve seen from time to time – skimming or stealing money. Or even blatantly having a line in front of colleagues.

Giveaways that make you wonder

Depending on your experiences in life, it might not occur to you that someone’s partying at all or too much. The symptoms at work might include issues with attendance, timekeeping, performance and behaviour – but if you take any action, that might lead to the employee revealing (one way or another) that they have a drug or alcohol issue.

Let’s start with a simple comparison to alcohol. You can probably tell if someone’s been drinking heavily the night before a working day: they might have a hangover and they’re probably talking about it.

If you wonder whether or not that person “drinks too much” then that’s because over a period of time you have noticed that they seem to drink heavily on a regular basis, including during the working week, and it affects the way they work – quality, behaviour and sometimes attendance. The classic example is telling a white lie to have a day off sick and you suspect they’ve just had a heavy night. Rightly or wrongly, the way people assess this frequently depends on the employee involved – for example more tolerance of younger employees’ partying, but more concern is the employee is older.

With cocaine, the same signs might be obvious and especially if the person drinks alcohol too. You might hear stories about their coke use. But frankly, before deciding to “do anything” you need to decide if it’s any of your business – is it causing any kind of work issue?

What should you do?

Firstly, decide what you’re aiming to achieve by having a conversation about it. Are you trying to tell them off for a problem at work, whether or not it’s due to any drug use? Are you offering help and support? If you are, can you back up that offer with anything that will help?

Another key thing to think about: does your workplace send mixed messages about drugs? We’ve had employees understandably asking why their coke use is not acceptable when other people have taken drugs at work events (like Christmas parties) and sometimes at their desk without getting into trouble.

So here’s a quick checklist to consider:
• Tread lightly: this is someone’s life and they may have significant problems that you’re asking them to share with you.
• Be prepared: as with any potentially difficult conversation, work out how you’re going to start and end the discussion.
• What are the key messages you’re going to get across? Eg offering help and support, instructing them to improve at work in some way or reprimanding them for crossing a line (no pun intended).
• Confidentiality: if it’s a very personal discussion and you’ve said it’s confidential, respect that 100%.
• Any follow-up? Is it a one-off, where you’ve given them clear advice about not repeating a problem, or are you going to offer a further chat at some point?
• And finally: don’t push it if the person clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. You’re at work and have no right to details of their private lives. If you handle it well, they might come back and discuss it in the future – or at least get the message that while at work, they have to keep things together.

By Brian

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