We Have a Substance Abuse Crisis in The Workplace. Here's How — and Why — Employers Need To Act Now. Substance abuse and addiction have long posed challenges for employers and employees alike. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, leaving many companies struggling to support workers and maintain productivity.
- Recognizing the signs of addiction.
- Rethinking workplace drug testing.
- Supporting employees in recovery.
- Addiction treatment must evolve.
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Substance abuse and addiction have long posed challenges for employers and employees alike. However, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, leaving many companies struggling to support workers and maintain productivity.
The isolation of remote work led to increased depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. Indeed, I've seen when helping clients figure out their hybrid work policies that, while the large majority of employees manage remote work well, a small proportion of more vulnerable employees fell prone to addictive behaviors during the work-from-home period.
According to a study by the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, an estimated 1 in 6, or 27 million, working-age Americans — those ages 25 to 54 — had substance use disorders (SUDs) in May 2022. That figure represents a 23% jump compared with the pre-pandemic days and is behind 9% to 26% of the overall drop in labor force participation. Now, with increasing amounts of time spent in the office, businesses must reconsider their approach to addiction and recovery in the workplace.
Recognizing the signs of addiction
Recognizing the signs of potential addiction among employees is crucial for maintaining a productive and healthy work environment. These indicators can manifest in various ways, encompassing both job performance and behavioral aspects.
Declining job performance is often one of the first red flags. Tasks that were previously completed with ease may start to suffer in quality, or deadlines may be frequently missed. Coupled with declining performance, increased absenteeism and tardiness can further substantiate the concern that an employee may be grappling with addiction issues.
Beyond these performance-related signals, physical symptoms can also be telling. These might include noticeable tremors, excessive sweating or an appearance of being intoxicated during work hours. Additionally, significant behavioral changes like abrupt mood swings, increased irritability, or increased secretiveness could also signify underlying issues.
While it is not the role of employers to diagnose medical conditions, these behavioral and performance-related changes are impossible to ignore and necessitate immediate action. Ignoring these signs could lead to a decrease in team morale and potentially even legal repercussions if the behavior results in accidents or jeopardizes workplace safety. Therefore, when such changes in employee behavior and productivity become apparent, it's imperative for employers to take the necessary steps to address the situation.
Rethinking workplace drug testing
Many employers require pre-employment and random drug tests. However, as cannabis legalization spreads, traditional testing is less relevant. Cannabis can remain in the system for weeks after use. Someone who smokes occasionally on weekends would still test positive days later, though no longer impaired.
For jobs requiring alertness and quick reactions, like pilots or machinery operators, testing still makes sense. But for many desk jobs, there is little consequence to off-hours marijuana use. Continuing to test for non-safety-sensitive roles wastes money and potentially costs talent. Instead, focus on performance and behavioral indicators of any substance abuse issue.
Supporting employees in recovery
When an employee admits or is discovered to have a substance abuse problem, punitive measures often follow. But addiction should be treated as any other disease — with support and accommodations. This begins with offering paid time off for treatment programs. Continued support could include adjusting schedules to allow for therapy and support groups.
Many recovering individuals benefit from anti-craving medications like buprenorphine. Employers should confidentially accommodate prescribed medical treatment. A workplace that supports recovery boosts retention. Employees feel valued and are more productive, knowing they won't be fired for seeking help.
Limiting access to addictive substances
While most addictions involve illegal drugs or alcohol, prescription medications also carry abuse potential. Employers providing healthcare benefits should ensure plans limit access to unnecessary opioids and benzodiazepines. Coverage for proven recovery medications like buprenorphine and naltrexone improves outcomes.
Workplaces using on-site doctors should guide them to avoid overprescribing addictive pills for minor pain or anxiety complaints. Referring to mental health professionals prevents covering up underlying issues with a quick script.
Training leadership and managers
HR professionals should receive training on recognizing signs of addiction and properly responding under ADA guidelines.
Frontline managers also need coaching to avoid enabling behaviors. Well-meaning leaders may cover for an employee coping with hangovers or mistakes rather than intervene. Enabling prolongs suffering and deterioration.
Learn when and how to express concern to an employee suspected of addiction. Have resources like EAP and treatment options on hand to assist when confronted.
Fostering a culture of support
While HR and management handle individual cases, the overall workplace culture matters immensely in preventing and recovering from addiction. A high-stress environment rife with competition and hostility breeds substance abuse. Places where drinking excessively at office gatherings becomes normalized sets employees up to develop alcoholism.
Flexible schedules granting appropriate work-life balance help keep stress manageable. A culture of compassion, healthy lifestyles and emotional support makes addiction less likely to take root and more safely addressed. Make wellbeing a workplace value and this mindset shift will diminish issues before they start.
It's crucial to have a safe and supportive place of addiction recovery available to employees who need it, without judgment or stigma, which are used to working with employers helping their employees, such as Advanced Recovery Systems. Such organizations are valuable allies for employers to provide care for their staff.
Addiction treatment must evolve
The pandemic proved existing treatment models insufficient. Innovations like online rehab programs and anti-addiction vaccines will expand access and success.
Medications for cocaine or methamphetamine addiction don't yet exist, but developing options offer hope. Artificial intelligence psychotherapy apps help reach rural users. Decentralized options undermine the stigma around rehab.
Employers have a duty to help employees access cutting-edge, convenient care. Invest in what works or advocate for needed solutions by partnering with startups or research institutions.
The opioid crisis taught us that lives depend on quickly adopting medical advancements. The same should apply to alcohol, nicotine, and any substance abuse. Innovation saves lives and careers.
Take a proactive stance
Ignoring addiction until forced to confront it almost guarantees both human and business costs. Nipping issues in the bud prevents larger problems. Review policies around testing, medical leave, EAP services, and workplace culture. Identify gaps or outdated approaches in need of modernization. Train both leadership and staff to recognize risks early and compassionately intervene. Embrace innovation in treatment methods and technology for accessible help.
By making addiction prevention and support an open workplace priority, employers keep both employees and companies healthier. Taking a proactive stance minimizes this threat multiplying out of control. When businesses adapt and employ empathy, they become part of the solution.