Nearly 10% of the American population over the age of 12 qualifies as "in need" of substance abuse treatment. Otherwise said, 1 out of every 10 adults in this country is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or some combination of the two. Further, in the past decade we’ve seen a spike in opioid use so great that it is termed a national epidemic. This problem does not discriminate by race, class, gender, or geography and is so widespread that it likely affects someone you know. If you own or manage a business, or work in a professional setting, you may start to wonder how to identify whether or not a co-worker has an addiction problem. And if you have your suspicions, do you fire that person or suggest they seek help? Is the addict affecting your bottom line or is their personal well-being a larger concern? As a business owner, how do you approach addiction in the workplace?
The face of addiction
Many people assume addiction is a problem that affects homeless people on street corners, but in reality addicts are often highly functioning professionals who are sitting in the next cube, or corner office. According to National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. Drug and alcohol treatment professionals see everything from a meth-addicted bookkeeper, to an OxyContin-smoking computer programmer, to an alcoholic advertising executive. In each case, the addict is very high functioning for a surprisingly long period of time. Occasionally co-workers and family members have suspicions, but more often highly functioning addicts are able to hide their habit for months or years.
What causes addiction?
Drug addiction and alcoholism can impose itself on people at any time in their lives, but is often a result of long term stress. Those who are in the midst of their careers can be susceptible to drug addiction or alcoholism due to the potentially stressful circumstances that a fast-pace career produces.
What are signs of addiction?
Often co-workers are unaware of their fellow employee’s habit. You may notice your co-worker has occasional erratic behavior such as yelling at a client, frequent sick days, or a slip in productivity. The employee who is not producing at the expected level may actually be suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism and trying to hide it. Often the addict will continue on, seemingly functioning, until a catastrophic life event finally acts as the catalyst to arrest their addiction. This scenario is the case with the vast majority of professionals with alcoholism. Most of the relatively minor consequences an addict experiences, such as a reprimand from their boss, are not enough for them to completely stop their substance abuse.
How does addiction affect a business?
Because there are no immediate repercussions, the employee who is an undetected active addict is likely to waste company resources in a variety of ways. He or she is likely to miss valuable opportunities in the workplace as he/she is too occupied with sustaining a “high.” Additionally, an addict is likely to have significant financial issues so the possibility of company theft is very high. Sadly though, an actively addicted employee simply doesn’t live up to his or her professional potential because they cannot focus on their personal improvement as it relates to their jobs.
What do you do when you suspect your co-worker is struggling with addiction?
Unfortunately, the complicated nature of alcoholism and drug addiction makes it difficult to diagnose accurately. Often an employer will assume the afflicted person is simply incapable of satisfying their job responsibilities and that employee is let go. However, there is a trend in the business community to regard addiction as an illness that requires treatment as opposed to a poor choice from an irresponsible person. More and more often employers are mandating that employees with substance abuse problems receive treatment for their disease. If, as an employer, you notice a sudden decrease in an employee’s productively or sudden shift in an employee’s mood, you should consider screening that person for drug and or alcohol addiction.
Employers and human resources directors are encouraged to receive training on the topic of drug addiction and alcoholism from organizations such as NCADD. To support employees who may be struggling with any kind of mental health or personal issue, NCADD suggests employers implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAD). EAD’s are confidential counseling and assistance programs, staffed either by a counselor in-house, an agency staff member, or both, and provide assistance with a variety of problems in addition to drug and alcohol dependency including marital and family issues, financial counseling, and other personal problems that may affect an employee’s ability to work. Further, NCADD recommends the following policies to assist employees who may be struggling with addiction:
- Implementing drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies;
- Offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders,
- Including aftercare and counseling;
- Reducing stigma in the workplace;
- Educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs
By understanding the nature of the disease, employers can help identify a person who may have a problem and suggest professional help. If employers change their thinking and terminology and see addiction a disease as opposed to a problem, they can support once-valued employees on the road to recovery.
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