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Coronavirus: Many UK business leaders ‘self-medicate’ poor mental health with alcohol, drugs

Saleha Riaz
·3-min read
Drugs, alcohol, smoking and vaping as well as gambling are often used as unhealthy coping mechanisms used by business leaders dealing with mental health issues. Photo: Getty Images
Drugs, alcohol, smoking and vaping as well as gambling are often used as unhealthy coping mechanisms used by business leaders dealing with mental health issues. Photo: Getty Images

Around 64% of board level executives in the UK who have experienced symptoms of mental ill-health during the coronavirus pandemic have turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms, new data revealed.

The study, conducted by Bupa Global as part of its Executive Wellbeing Index, said that for 38% this has meant using alcohol or drugs, both recreational and over-the-counter ones. The UK is behind the international average of 40%, with France leading the table (46%).

Other methods of coping include cigarettes or vaping, excessive exercise, over or under eating, and even gambling.

Chart: Bupa Global
Chart: Bupa Global

Some 78% in the UK also said they have experienced symptoms such as fatigue, lack of motivation, mood swings and disturbed sleep.

Triggers include concerns about business, economic recession, protecting the health of loved ones, coping with reduced personal freedoms as well as personal financial instability.

The pandemic has not only lead to increased stress but it has also meant many of the coping mechanisms normally available, such as seeing friends and family, going to the gym or going on holiday, have become harder to access.

Adding to the problem is the fact that despite widespread awareness of the mental health impact of the pandemic, stigmas are still preventing many from seeking the help they need.

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Two in five board level executives (42%) believe that it would damage their reputation if it became known if they were struggling. A similar number are concerned about the impact on their professional or social reputation if they ask for help.

Only one in four of those affected (27%) have spoken to a medical professional.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that the number of people in the UK at risk of alcohol addiction has jumped to 8.5 million during the pandemic.

“With complex networks of colleagues, investors, affiliates as well as their own families to consider, it’s no surprise that many have felt that they must ‘keep calm and carry on,’ rather than facing up to mental health issues head on,” said Dr Luke James, Bupa Global’s medical director.

He warned that while self-medication can seem like a quick-fix solution, it won’t solve the core issue and could ultimately make things worse.

“As we face even greater challenges to our mental health over winter, I’d urge anyone who might be struggling to come forward,” he said.

Meanwhile Poppy Jaman, CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance said “encouraging compassionate dialogue which leads to positive action is crucial to creating psychologically safe workplace cultures where everyone can flourish.”

“Workplaces that nurture talent, train line managers, put mental health and wellbeing on the board agenda are building resilient businesses which in turn will be able to face these challenging times,” she added.

Signs of self-medication include an increased reliance on drugs or alcohol to help deal with stressors such as giving presentations, or making big business or financial decisions.

An increased tolerance to the effects of alcohol, worsening mental health symptoms and an impact on appearance, such as a drastic loss or gain in weight, are also indicators of a deeper problem.

Bupa Global said it is now providing greater coverage for mental health conditions including addiction and self-inflicted injuries.

Back in September, experts warned that stricter coronavirus restrictions could spur a second wave of poor mental health among UK business leaders, after a rise in coronavirus cases forced the UK government to reintroduce tighter measures across the country.

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