According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 8.7 percent of full-time workers aged 18 to 64 said they “drank heavily” in the past month. About the same number reported using illegal drugs in that same period.
Taken together, perhaps 1 in 10 American workers exhibited behavior that may qualify as an “addiction” or a substance use disorder. This lines up with the general experience here at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers, before the pandemic. Because Americans increased drug and alcohol use in 2020, even more employees may have problems with substance use today.
If you know or suspect that one of your employees has a problem with substance misuse, below are a few ways that you can help as an employer.
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1.) Be sensitive with the language you use
The word “addict”, “alcoholic”, and “abuse” are just some commonly used words that carry an intense social stigma. When talking to someone with a substance use issue, it’s important to understand that they are sick and are potentially vulnerable to a misplaced word or action. As an employer or manager, your words and decisions carry weight and can affect their future employment.
While no means universal, many addiction treatment experts have taken to following DSM-5 guidelines, where the terms “substance addiction” and “substance abuse” have been supplanted by the term “substance use disorder” or “SUD”. Aside from taking into account current scientific knowledge, where the formerly separate conditions are now understood to be one disorder, the change also helps avoid the stigma associated with the old terms.
You may even want to start using “SUD” and other less problematic phrases immediately in your official memos as well as in your drug use policy. You may already have employees in your care who need help but are too afraid to look for it. Removing some of the shame associated with their illness may be the impetus for them to get the help they need.
2.) Familiarize yourself with relevant federal and state laws
Whether you ultimately plan to retain the employee, fire them, or manage them out, it’s important to understand just what the legal limits are. This won’t just protect you, but it will also help protect the employee as well. It will also allow you to get a better understanding of the specific ways you could help them, as well as the boundaries that you should not cross, as an employer.
The first thing you will need to brush up on is the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, as it protects employees who are currently in the process of recovery. Notably, it does not protect current drug use. You will also want to look into any relevant state legislation on the subject. You may want the assistance of a legal expert on this matter.
3.) Have clear, written policies on drug use — before you catch anyone
Different employers and workplaces have different cultures. While one might be more accepting of alcohol use on the job, another one in the same space and industry might not. The wider acceptance of cannabis and other recreational substances even within a small but growing number of American workplaces has also made it less clear what type of substance use is or isn’t acceptable in different contexts.
Unfortunately, relying on verbal or implicit agreements for your drug policy is a bad idea that not only poses physical and legal dangers to you and your employees but could eat into morale and productivity as well.
The US Department of Labor recommends that all workplaces have concrete, written policies on drug and alcohol use. This is meant for the protection of both employees and employers. Setting expectations early on that everyone has signed off on can remove much of the awkwardness and ambiguity that often follows a confrontation with an employee over their substance misuse.
The types of policies you choose to have in place will have to be carefully worded to comply with state and federal laws. For this reason, you may want to consult with a lawyer or an experienced HR manager to help create your company’s drug policy.
4.) Help them find the resources they need
Everyone’s situation is different. While many people can lean on family and friends to help them get started with their recovery, not everyone has people they could rely on. In some cases, you and the other people at work they interact with are the only things they may have resembling a support network.
In either case, there are things that you, as an employer, can do to help them get started on their recovery. For instance, you can provide them with resources to nearby outpatient recovery programs so that they can get treatment as they continue working. Another way to provide support is to provide additional educational materials related to the current scientific understanding of SUD that they and other employees may find useful. You can also help them be better acquainted with their rights through your HR department or a company lawyer.
The type of support you’ll be willing to give will, of course, differ on the circumstances. However, if you feel that the employee is worth the investment, you will want to help them recover and ultimately rejoin your team.
5.) Be prepared to give them time off
Most rehab experts agree that it usually takes at least three months of intensive treatment to ensure a long-term recovery. People with severe alcohol and drug problems may require much longer.
Unfortunately, this means that employees who are currently undergoing treatment for a substance use disorder will often find it impossible to keep working. If they’re enrolled in a residential program, working, even on a remote basis, may be all but impossible. If you believe the employee can continue to be an asset after they recover, you should be prepared to give them time off to complete their treatment. As an employer you may even try to find alternative programs that could allow them to continue working through a reduced hour or remote work basis.
Confronting an employee about their substance use can be an incredibly delicate situation for everyone involved. As an employer, it’s important that you proactively address the common problem of drug use in the workplace by having a plan in place even before you confront anyone.
In any case, you should proceed with any action knowing that everyone’s rights need to be duly protected. You can better ensure this by consulting with SUD treatment specialists as well as legal experts to get a more nuanced view of the situation.