How to Have a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

Substance abuse in the workplace is a serious liability for employers. Every year in this country, drug and alcohol abuse are major contributors to workplace injuries and fatalities, plus they drain employee productivity and costs employers billions in lost productivity and health care.

That bottom line is coupled by the fact that more than half of the approximately 19 million Americans with substance use disorders (SUDs) are active in the workforce, according to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (This figure may be conservative, since an estimate by the National Council on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse suggested that 70% of Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.)

The Case for a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

There is therefore strong incentive for employers to create recovery-friendly workplaces that are characterized by:

  • A drug-free workplace policy and measures to ensure compliance.
  • A culture that positively embraces abstinence as a viable component of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Employee substance abuse awareness.
  • Support options for employees at various stages of their recovery.
  • Employee initiatives and offerings that encourage mind-body health and fitness.

Building a recovery-friendly culture isn’t just good for the health of employees in recovery or employees struggling with an undiagnosed SUD; a recovery-friendly culture is good for every employee’s health. Why? Because many of the same components that support recovery are also essential components of any healthy lifestyle.

HR’s Role In Recovery

Human Resources professionals can be on the frontlines of creating a recovery-friendly workplace. HR personnel are key gatekeepers of company culture in their role articulating company policies and procedures. And they are usually the first point of contact for substance abuse-related safety and performance issues, fewer of which would mean less HR stress and headaches (yet another potential benefit of a recovery-friendly workplace).

How, then, can HR professionals help build a recovery-friendly workplace? Consider the following measures:

1. Make sure you have clear policies in place for dealing with drugs and alcohol in the workplace, and that every employee is educated at orientation.

A zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol in the workplace and disciplinary procedures for violations of this rule should be articulated in the employee manual.

Onboarding can also be a good time to educate employees about signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse. At the start of their employment, all employees should also be advised about what health and wellness resources are available to them, including support options for SUDs. In addition to an employee health insurance program, these resources might include, an Employee Assistance program (EAP), health and wellness programs, and crisis hotlines.

2. Compile a list of referrals to trusted drug and alcohol treatment facilities and support groups in your area.

If your company has an EAP, this measure may not be necessary. If not, I recommend it. A good starting place for reliable inpatient and outpatient treatment referrals in your area is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline. Ideally, every new employee should be advised of the service. If you have employer-provided health insurance, you will also need to know what treatments are covered by insurance so that you can advise employees accordingly.

3. Be proactive in addressing employee substance abuse.

The sooner you intervene, the better — so don’t wait for a problem to escalate when the signs of substance abuse are there. Be quick to broach the issue privately with the employee in a firm and supportive way.

4. Host regular healthy group activities like 12-step groups, meditation or yoga.

Research shows that regular participation in 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous improves recovery outcomes for people with SUDs. But people with SUDs aren’t the only demographic to benefit from 12-step involvement, as a proliferation of these support groups for other health-related challenges (smoking, overeating and workaholism, etc.) seem to suggest.

Similarly, meditation and yoga are two other workplace-friendly group activities that are relatively easy to host and good for anyone’s health.

5. Encourage after-work bonding activities and outings that do not revolve around alcohol, such as fun classes or activity-geared socials.

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It’s hard to think of something less recovery-friendly than a work happy hour. A softball or kickball league, on the other hand, is recovery-friendly and healthier. These venues can also serve as motivation to get into better shape for anyone.

Advise managers not to organize happy hour gatherings nor to penalize or publicly question employees who choose to skip them. Recovery is not the only reason an employee may have for foregoing these social events, but it could be.

6. Implement periodic reviews and drug testing company-wide.

In addition to pre-employment drug testing, companies can encourage employee abstinence and accountability with periodic drug testing, such as random, post-accident and reasonable suspicion tests. Drug sweep tests are another form of drug testing that can help to ensure compliance with a drug-free workplace policy.

By following these tips, HR professionals can promote a recovery-friendly workplace that is better for every employee’s health and productivity. Your company’s bottom line will thank you for it.