Liz Sheffield

Approaching Addiction in the Workplace

The cost of addiction in the workplace goes beyond the personal toll it takes on individual employees. Between absenteeism, lost productivity, turnover and health care costs, your bottom line also takes a serious hit.

The National Safety Council reports that each year, the average employee misses about 10.5 days of work for illness, injury or reasons other than vacation and holidays. Workers with substance use disorders miss nearly 50% more time, at 14.8 days annually. Employees with pain medication use disorders miss 29 days — almost three times the average. Meanwhile, estimates indicate that alcoholism in the workplace costs $74 billion in lost productivity each year.

Then there are the other, less tangible harms — just as important as the direct financial costs, if harder to put a number to. According to the Harvard Medical School, drug and alcohol abuse among employees can cause a noticeable downturn in a workforce’s morale, motivation and engagement, as well as a dip in its overall attitude.

While drug testing and other measures can help prevent these problems before they start, they can only go so far. So, what do you do if you suspect that someone’s work is suffering because of an addiction problem? Here’s a look at how to broach the issue with your employees, support them in their struggle and be a partner in recovery.

Addressing Addiction

Approaching an employee who may be abusing drugs or alcohol is no simple task.

If your organization does utilize drug testing, results that indicate drug use provide one way to start the conversation. Managers or other employees can also be a valuable resource. If your staff is trained to recognize the signs of alcohol and drug use, then a report that a colleague may need help can let you know it’s time to open up a dialogue.

In following up with employees who may be dealing with substance abuse disorders, use performance management as a framework for how to address the topic. Be prepared to offer specific evidence of your concerns — from missed deadlines to physical symptoms like bloodshot eyes — as well as to lay out your organization’s drug- and alcohol-related policies.

Illegal drug use isn’t protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, though recovering addicts are. If an employee doesn’t provide more information and their work doesn’t improve, address the issues based on existing policies. Some employers have a “no-tolerance” policy that outlines disciplinary action, up to and including termination. If you take a no-tolerance approach, be sure to document issues and subsequent actions so that you can provide information if legal action occurs.

Supporting Employees

No-tolerance policies may protect your bottom line, but they don’t give you the opportunity to help struggling employees — just to punish them.

Employees can be more amenable to your support than you might think. Even if they’re aware of substance abuse, for example, employees may avoid treatment for themselves or their family members if it also means avoiding the associated medical costs. This is why it’s essential to communicate what’s covered by your company’s health plan. As part of your health and wellness messaging, explain the addiction treatment benefits available and offer educational resources about treatment options.

Finally, evaluate your organizational practices. Could on-site alcohol be reinforcing addictive behaviors? Would it be valuable to introduce employees to a local prescription monitoring program to see to it that addictive medications aren’t being taken for longer than necessary? Make sure your policies clarify expectations about what it means to be a drug-free workplace. Remember, too, that you’re not alone in addressing addiction in the workplace — ask your health plan provider for help. They can connect you with information on how to proactively prevent prescription drug addiction.

Serving as a Partner

Without a supportive work environment, many employees never seek treatment. Work with your benefits provider to ensure you’re offering employees the coverage they need, including rehabilitation services, and that your employees receive regular updates about their addiction benefits as they change. Due to the stigma associated with addiction, employees may be nervous about asking questions or admitting there’s an issue, so make sure you’re clear that your role is to support them.

You can also serve as a partner in recovery by:

  • Offering referrals to recovery meetings. Post signs online and in common work areas so that it’s easy to spot the information.
  • Setting up workshops. Host classes or lunch and learns focused on tools to manage stress, such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga.
  • Providing counseling. Empower employees with short-term counseling benefits through your employee assistance program.

Employers aren’t under any requirements to excuse on-the-job drug and alcohol abuse or violations of a drug-free workplace policy, but overly rigid policies don’t allow you to react with flexibility to different situations. Look for ways to address addiction within your organization based on what’s needed.

Providing benefits options and serving as a supportive partner in recovery doesn’t have to be a Herculean effort. With seemingly small steps, employers can work to create a healthier workforce. Tackling addiction is a team effort — and employers, employees and health plan providers all have a role to play.

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