Addiction Warning Signs Every Employer Need to Be Aware Of

Substance use disorders affect more than 20 million Americans. When you add family members who are affected by their loved ones’ addictions, over one-third of our nation is impacted by this disease. The stigma associated with addiction may cause some individuals to perceive addicts as jobless, but in actuality, 75% of them are part of the US workforce. The annual economic impact of drug and alcohol misuse is calculated at $442 billion.

Currently, our world is facing unprecedented times. Health officials have enacted social distancing, quarantines, and shut down of non-essential businesses in most areas of the country. Self-isolation – while contributing to the greater good – can release new feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress and certainly exacerbate existing mental health problems. Many individuals are experiencing financial hardship due to changes in their family’s savings or their spouse’s employment status. According to the CDC, these stresses can lead to increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

It’s very likely that you have employees working with you that misuse drugs or alcohol, and addiction rates will, unfortunately, continue to rise in the immediate future. Supervisors are often reluctant to act when performance starts to suffer due to drinking/using drugs excessively because they are unsure how to address the issue. HR professionals are key in supporting employees with substance abuse problems by training managers to recognize signs of addiction, providing resources for help, and developing policies and procedures on how to address this topic.

The sooner you proactively address the issue, the better. The longer an addiction goes untreated, the more risk and legal liability you may incur. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with a substance use disorder are four times more likely to be involved in workplace accidents.

What to look for

There are physical symptoms of addiction employers may notice, such as falling asleep on the job, having bloodshot eyes, or smelling like alcohol. At the time of this writing, most individuals working for “non-essential” businesses have been asked to work from home due to COVID-19 risks. I predict that once these guidelines have been lifted, many more employees will continue to work from home. This poses an additional barrier in identifying warning signs; however, there are still behaviors to look out for such as:

  • A change in work quality. Projects may be delayed or incomplete.
  • Unexplained “emergencies,” frequent tardiness, and emergent patterns like always calling out sick after payday.
  • Mood or behavior changes, such as increased isolation and avoidance of co-workers. This may occur in remote workers by not including video chat during online meetings, or not answering phone calls and instead relying on emails only.

How organizations can help

If an employee is willing to get help, they should be granted a leave of absence to seek treatment without being concerned they will lose their job. Substance use disorder is a disability, per the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  Allowing employees to access long-term treatment services is more cost-effective, less disruptive to your business, and limits your risk of them continuing to use addictively. It is also helpful for employers to offer comprehensive insurance benefits that cover all stages of treatment for substance use disorders, including detox, residential care, outpatient care, and individual counseling.

Employers should have a clear, supportive drug and alcohol policy in place that ensures employees with addiction problems feel safe to come forward. Most individuals believe they may be passed over for a promotion or fired if they seek addiction treatment while employed. Ensure this policy is included in Orientation and that all employees read and sign it upon hire.  I also recommend that the policy include safety provisions on alcohol being served at company functions.

Guide supervisors to document all performance issues, schedule a face-to-face meeting with the employee to discuss concerns while an HR representative is present and plan for a denial response (a common reaction to confrontation).  Unless the employee was obviously intoxicated on the job, the supervisor should keep the focus on their declining job performance. Be careful in maintaining boundaries; do not cover up for their behavior or delegate their work to someone else. These behaviors can enable the individual and keep them in active addiction.

The employee should be strongly encouraged to utilize Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services to guide them in finding treatment that’s right for them. Small companies may not have an EAP, but they can still assist employees by maintaining a current list of resources available in the community.

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When an employee returns

On the first day an employee returns to work after completing treatment, schedule a return-to-work meeting. Employees may be concerned about confidentiality, how other employees may treat them moving forward or feel unsure about expectations concerning their job schedule and performance. Likewise, supervisors may be concerned about the employee’s ability to reintegrate into the workforce and how to best support them. This meeting allows the supervisor, employee, and HR to discuss any changes that may have happened during their absence, remind the employee that he or she is valued and discuss any concerns the employee has about returning.

Support the employee in their ongoing recovery by providing accommodations for their recommended prescription for treatment. Their residential treatment stay may be followed by a longer length of outpatient services or aftercare. These are oftentimes held in the evening to accommodate working individuals, but if the employee needs to leave slightly early to get to their appointment on time, communicate a solution that works for both of you.  Research shows that continued engagement in recovery activities and therapy will result in a greater likelihood of sustained sobriety.

Establish a written return-to-work agreement (RTWA) that outlines expectations for the employee when they re-enter the workforce. The expectations may include complying with a drug-free workplace, when and how performance will be reviewed, consequences of poor performance, as well as steps taken if a relapse occurs. It should include the acknowledgment that if the employee cannot meet these standards, the failure to do so can be grounds for termination. This will help the employee stay accountable to their own recovery.

After the employee has reintegrated into the workplace, be sensitive to signs of “workaholism.” It’s very common to see individuals in recovery substituting one addiction for another, whether that’s gambling, relationships, overeating, or work. Support them in taking time to “recharge” to manage their stress and think of ways to support the entire team in this as well.

In fact, being intentional about creating a balanced work culture and providing tools for stress-relief can help your entire team perform to their fullest potential. Having overly stressed employees leads to high staff turnover, disengagement, and an overall loss in productivity. However, employees that feel supported in their mental, physical, and emotional health are more likely to remain committed to the company and be more productive over time.

Sue Bright is the Executive Director of New Directions for Women, an addiction treatment center for women of all ages in Southern California. With more than 30 years’ experience in the behavioral healthcare field, she specializes in intake, quality improvement, and working collaboratively with HR professionals, EAPs, and unions.

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