Substance Addiction: No Workforce Is Immune

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Nov 20, 2018

70% of employers reported the opioid epidemic has affected their workforce while 81% of employers surveyed indicated they are not well prepared to deal with the addiction crisis. Does this pertain to your company?

Suppose you learned that 9.5% of your employees were dependent on or abused alcohol or illicit drugs during the past year, 46% have or had a loved one who was wrestling with substance use disorders or early recovery, and 10% were in recovery from substance use disorders?

That’s what the most recently available national surveys tell us.

Would you be moved enough by these revelations about your workforce to learn more about the impact of addiction and recovery on their lives, and to reassess the impact on the company’s performance and organizational health?

Adults who have substance use disorders involving alcohol and other drugs, or who are trying to sustain early recovery, are likely to live in emotional chaos. They may be dealing with dysfunctional personal lives and severely damaged relationships with loved ones, and are (or have been) on a downward spiral. They may feel shame, pain, bewilderment, and may be experiencing denial and a loss of self-control. Their thinking is impaired, their physical health is compromised, and their brains don’t operate up to their former level. Their stamina is lessened and they are less able to focus on work. Many become socially isolated, fearing colleagues and friends will “find out” about them and judge them harshly; they need more medical attention and are absent from work more often than they used to be.

This is a picture of what a significant percentage of your employees are experiencing.

Add to that figure those employees who are emotionally preoccupied and exhausted by a loved one’s addiction, relapse or early recovery, and employees who have special needs to sustain a lifestyle of sobriety. We assert that up to one-half of your total workforce is actively dealing with addiction and recovery.

Productivity losses

What is the hit to your organization’s productivity and bottom line? A 2009 guide produced by the National Business Group on Health estimated fully that one-third of productivity is lost because of fuzzy thinking, absenteeism, less reliable and committed employees (at all levels), decreased efficiency, lower employee satisfaction and morale, and higher turnover among affected employees.

What is the hit to the integrity and effectiveness of your organization’s announced values of inclusion, diversity, and wellness when employees with substance use disorders or in recovery have to hide their struggles because of stigma and employment security concerns, have to struggle to maintain sobriety if alcohol is available in the workplace or in company social gatherings, or if “silent sufferers” cannot openly seek others with similar challenges for support and support groups?

Employer programs are too limited

The chances are senior management and most HR professionals don’t know these facts of life about their workforce because affected individuals don’t talk about their circumstances. They are fearful of the consequences of social stigma, being negatively stereotyped and suffering threats to their reputation and the loss of their job. Typically, they don’t seek or find help until they “hit bottom.” They suffer in silence and are thus invisible to management.

Sadly, too, well-intended corporate policies and programs are rarely suitably responsive to the intensity and enormity of challenges faced by affected employees — unless by chance, the managers in charge happen to be “closet” alcoholics, addicts, or in recovery. Without such understanding and empathy, organizations’ policies and programs intended to support employees in need tend to be too limited in scope and duration to be helpful, beyond providing life saving detoxification and short-term therapy.


Most companies have EAP programs and health insurance that include help for substance use disorders.

Most of these get triggered when an employee “hits bottom” and desperately needs to be rescued. Typically, the employee is referred to a treatment center for 30 days of detoxification, early stage therapy, and encouragement to find support when they go back to their “normal” lives.

Despite benefits derived from treatment, 40-to-60% of the “graduates” relapse. And, among the population of adults challenged by substance use disorders, only one in 10 find treatment because of the stigma and shame associated with addiction and the lack of resources readily available.


At the other end of the spectrum, those companies that allow or foster alcohol consumption in the work place (perhaps to “lubricate” socialization among employees) are nourishing substance use disorders and making the lives of individuals in recovery exceedingly unpleasant, risky, and toxic — by making drinking so much a part of the organization’s culture, and the temptations of alcohol so close to the work place.

You have a problem

We believe that the figures cited above about the incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction and recovery in the general adult population of the US are highly likely to apply to your workforce and throughout your organization. As consultants in the field we have come to accept certain propositions:

  • Management cannot know the truth about substance abuse in the organization because almost no employee at any level or in any function will admit to having problems out of fear of the possible consequences.
  • When your company evaluates individuals for hiring or promotion purposes, the chances are you will not be able to effectively screen for potential substance misuse or recovery challenges (except for the most extreme users who will show up in drug screenings).
  • Because substance use disorders and early stage recovery exist throughout the US adult population, all organizations are likely to reflect the national averages. Therefore, we believe no one in senior management who cares about employees’ and the organization’s health and performance can in good conscience turn away from the associated challenges (which now more than before are prevalent because of the addiction crisis plaguing the country).
  • Unless one is or has been an addict, an alcoholic, is actively in recovery or has a loved one struggling with any of these diseases or their legacies, they will not possess the understanding, empathy or motivation to create supportive policies and programs and environment sufficient to support employees who want to change their behaviors, take better care of themselves, repair their damaged personal lives, and deal more successfully with the practical day-to-day challenges of sustaining recovery. Needed in the boardroom and senior executive discussions is the informed “voice” of those with substance use disorders, in recovery, and/or those concerned about a loved one’s challenges.
  • Those in charge of developing and managing the organization’s policies and programs need to gain a basic understanding of the facts and the science about substance use disorders: what addiction is and how it occurs, how body and brain health are impacted by substance abuse and why breaking addiction and creating sustained recovery are so challenging.

Policies that undermine sobriety and recovery

We have encountered a range of organizational philosophies and approaches for meeting employees’ and the overall organization’s challenges with substances, many of which unintentionally undermine the health, sobriety and recovery of its employees. Here are some examples:

  • One leading company permits drinking on campus during the work day and stocks office refrigerators with alcoholic beverages.
  • Another leading company with a CEO who has made all-company proclamations that employees cannot drink on campus because alcohol is a drug and is bad for their health.
  • A company that hosts after work social gatherings whose theme is a comparison of alcoholic beverage brand.
  • A top executive at a major company told his direct report you can’t trust anyone who doesn’t go out drinking alcohol with colleagues after work.
  • A company policy that essentially says, “What employees do in their after-work time and what health or emotional issues they are dealing with is their business and concern — not the company’s.”

These are complex policy matters that are not readily understood. Given the importance of management’s becoming educated and engaged about this issue, we suggest organizations should explore very thoughtfully with the help of experts what its philosophies and programs should be in regard to the impact of substance abuse. Organizations may wish to begin by conducting an audit of their drinking and using culture; evaluate employees’ health benefits; consider how the organization responds (or has responded) to other national health epidemics and critical health concerns (for example, smoking); how they accommodate and include employees with other types of disabilities; what are the typical assumptions about substance use and its impact on health, productivity and success; what is understood about the process, treatment options and duration required to achieve recovery?