Addiction in the Workplace: How to Help a Co-Worker
By Jill Gill, LIMHP, LADC
How can employers and employees help a co-worker suffering from addiction? Each year, addiction costs American businesses an estimated $276 billion. Beyond the financial impact, accidents and fatalities produce tragic consequences. In fact, one out of ten employees has a substance use disorder (SUD) in their lifetime.
As the SUD epidemic spreads, businesses experience low productivity, low employee morale, increase in health care costs, absenteeism, injuries and fatalities. The U.S. Department of Labor reports more than 500 million workdays are lost to addiction annually. However, there are practical steps and solutions available to help employers confront and reduce the significant impact of addiction in the workplace.
First, it is essential for employers and employees to understand that addiction to drugs and alcohol, clinically known as substance use disorder (SUD), is a treatable brain disease, characterized by a progressive and problematic pattern of substance use leading to significant impairment.
Supporting the effort to define SUD and offer solutions, the Office of the Surgeon General of the United Stated released a landmark report on the country’s addiction epidemic in 2017, “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.” The report findings are expansive, significant and full of hope for all those affected by this major public health challenge, including employers and their employees.
Perhaps the most important finding of the report identifies addiction as “a chronic neurological disorder” that must be recognized and included in the healthcare system, requiring clinical treatment and ongoing supportive care. Another key piece of the report provides considerable evidence showing that prevention, treatment, and recovery policies and programs really do work. It confirms that high quality, accessible treatment programs can significantly reduce the effects of SUD on workplaces and help employees find productive recovery.
Often people living with addiction will avoid reaching out to their employer, fearing they will lose their job. This deadly decision is the result of the stigma of addiction. Stigma prevents millions of employees from seeking treatment for their SUD. Although addiction is a chronic brain disease that requires treatment, the stigma fosters fear of reaching out for help, ultimately costing lives.
“No physical or psychiatric condition is more associated with social disapproval and discrimination than substance dependence,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance. “Stigma is a major factor preventing individuals from seeking and completing addiction treatment.”
Changing attitudes and misconceptions in the workplace and among management can significantly reduce the dangerous stigma that prevents co-workers from reaching out for help.
Warning Signs of Addiction
What are the symptoms of addiction? There are several warning signs that can indicate an employee may be suffering with an SUD, including:
• Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual.
• Changes in productivity, attitude and focus.
• Increase in absenteeism and late arrivals.
• Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
• Deterioration of physical appearance, personal grooming habits.
• Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
• Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination.
It is essential for company leadership to learn and understand HR/workplace policies, insurance benefits, privacy laws and employee guidelines and rights such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
To help ease navigating legal, benefits and policy burdens, more and more employers are providing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). EAPs are cost-effective tools to mitigate these risks. EAPs can help employers reduce absences, workers’ compensation claims, health care costs, accidents and grievances. In addition, they can address safety and security issues, improve employee productivity and engagement and reduce costs related to employee turnover.
Although EAPs provide referrals, resources and counsel for employees and their families on a breadth of issues and concerns, the EAP system was founded to find successful treatment for addiction through thoughtful assessments, informed referrals and ongoing support. Some SUD treatment providers work with countless EAPs across the country to provide the best quality care available for their employees and all patients. From local businesses and community organizations to large corporations, EAPs have become efficient, effective tools for helping employees receiving effective treatment for addiction, managing the processes and communications, working with insurance providers and relieving management from oversight of an employee’s treatment process.
Reducing employee SUD can help employers decrease health care costs, reduce workplace injuries and improve productivity. Services such as EAPs can help assess, refer and manage employee SUD treatment and any needs to support their recovery.
When the employee completes initial treatment, it is critical that they return to a supportive work environment. Ideally, employees who have participated in and finished treatment programs return to the workplace sober and “in recovery.”
Recovery is an ongoing process where the employee continues to work a program outside of treatment, such as attending Twelve Step meetings, outpatient therapy or other continuing care programs. Ongoing participation in a recovery program is essential to long-term sobriety.
For more information on addiction, treatment and recovery, please visit valleyhope.org or for help 24/7 call (800) 544-5101.