Retail Reflections

Retail Workplace Challenge: What Do You Do To Manage Mental Health And Substance Abuse During Covid-19?

Retail Workplace Challenge: What Do You Do To Manage Mental Health And Substance Abuse During Covid-19?

Following the Covid-19 lockdown, the Retail industry counts as some of the worst affected labour market sectors, where millions of employees are furloughed and are at higher risk of unemployment.

The combination of the pandemic situation, unemployment stress, and uncertainty, can have a negative impact on people’s mental health and can also lead to substance abuse, whereby alcohol might be a favourite coping mechanism to help deal with stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts.

Benenden Health’s report discovered that 35% of surveyed people are struggling with their mental health as a result of the pandemic, with 12% of those never having suffered from poor mental wellbeing before now.

Furthermore, according to the NHS, statistically men are more at risk of abusing alcohol than women, with 38% of men and 19% of women aged 55 to 64 usually drinking over 14 units in a week.

If you want to get support to help you through these difficult times, the retailTRUST charity offers a wide range of services on managing the health and wellness of retail professionals during Covid-19 pandemic, including preventing and managing alcohol-related harm.

Here’s some information on one of the subtypes of alcohol dependency which is more difficult to recognise, but nevertheless equally harmful to the individual and their workplace.

High-functioning alcoholics

When we hear the word alcoholic, most of us tend to imagine someone whose life is falling apart. However, some people seem to be just fine even though they abuse alcohol. Addiction experts call these people high-functioning alcoholics”.

A functional alcoholic might not act the way you would expect them to act as they can still effectively manage to hold down jobs, to have a family and maintain households, as well as build social bonds. Hence, people often overlook their drinking, however, it’s still problem drinking that can negatively affect the drinker’s health, their job, marriage, and other social relations.

Therefore, the alcohol related negative consequences on work performance should not be underestimated, especially if as a member of your health & safety team you have responsibility for protecting and supporting employee wellbeing.

The neuroscience behind drinking

For many people alcohol consumption is a means of relaxation. A few drinks can give you a buzz, a sense of elation and reduced social inhibitions due to a dopamine release in your brain – the neurotransmitter chemical responsible for pleasure.

Thus, while in the process of drinking, alcohol acts as a stimulant. But as you continue drinking and more alcohol enters your blood stream, instead of pleasurable effects increasing, actually negative emotional responses will take over. This is because at this point your drunken brain has elevated levels of norepinephrine which increase impulsivity and decrease your social inhibitions.

The psychology of defence mechanisms at work

Most functional alcoholics are in deep denial about their problem, thinking they have their drinking under control based upon their achievements. Also, they might rationalise their alcohol consumption by using it as a reward after completing a project at work, for example.

Drinking is usually restricted to specific times, situations, or beverages, supported by excuses such as: “I never drink during the day,” “I don’t drink spirits, only wine,” or “It doesn’t do any harm if I drink after work.” These self-imposed limitations are reinforcing the person to convince themselves that they are in control of their drinking when in fact, the opposite is true.

It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in before your first glass of alcohol, as you continue drinking, the stimulating effect of alcohol turns into a sedating effect which reduces your ability to think rationally, increases fatigue and confusion, distorts judgement, dulls senses, increases your irritability and anger and makes you prone to impulsive behaviour and decision making that you may regret later when sober.

The effects on the mental and physical health

Anxiety, depression, and anger commonly appear in people who abuse alcohol as mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can also cause people to drink too much.

That’s because ultimately, alcohol acts more as a depressant than a relaxant that drastically alters the mood, behaviour, and neuropsychological functioning, especially in people who are long term drinkers.

Angry outbursts are often a result of the distorted reasoning, where for example, even a benign conversation with your partner, colleague, or a friend can be interpreted as threatening, which might trigger an unnecessary conflict that could easily get out of order and continue to affect your interaction for days, weeks or even months.  

And when it comes to physical health, unfortunately it’s impossible to continue drinking heavily for a long period of time without also suffering the physical consequences of alcoholism, such as liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, neurological damage, or cancer.

Bottom line

During times of increased stress, and especially during the Covid-19 lockdown, developing a proactive and tailored offer of mental health support to your employees is a key ingredient to a successful business. Fostering a supportive culture that enforces positive change in mental health policies should be high on your agenda if you have leadership responsibilities in your organisation.

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