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How Companies Are Tackling Addiction

January 10, 2022 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

With healthcare costs rising across the country and the pandemic taking a toll on public health, employee health and well-being have never been more important than they are today.

One troubling trend is the spike in addiction rates as people turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Inevitably, these addictions carry forward into the workplace. 

Addiction carries a social stigma that discourages many people with drug and alcohol problems from seeking treatment. That's doubly so when it affects their job. Here are some of the ways companies are tackling the challenge in the enterprise and helping employees overcome their challenges.

There's No Vaccine for the Addiction Pandemic

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, another pandemic is still raging with no end in sight. In November 2021, the National Center for Health Statistics announced that in the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, over 100,000 Americans died of overdoses, up almost 30% from 2019. Experts attribute the increase to lost access to treatment due to the pandemic, an increase in mental health problems, and greater availability of the opioid fentanyl.

Add in the anxiety that many employees are feeling as they return to the office, and it’s a prescription for drug and alcohol abuse. According to a McKinsey report, 33% of employees said that their return to the office has had a negative impact on their mental health, and that they are feeling anxious and depressed.

It's not just a personal issue of employee health and well-being. Even before the pandemic, substance abuse cost US businesses close to $81 billion in lost productivity annually.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs Can Play a Positive Role

Cheryl Brown Merriwether, vice president and executive director of ICARE, the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education, said there are ways that companies can proactively assist and encourage employees with addictions to get help.

"Companies seeking innovative solutions to meet the needs of a hurting post-pandemic workforce, should consider expanding DEI initiatives to identify, include and engage the sober-curious, or recovery-minded individuals who are already a part of their workforce, but covered and hiding in plain sight,” Merriwether said. “These individuals are a valuable resource to help other individuals who have been hiding in plain sight to uncover and find their way to a more authentic path."

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives can give a voice to the voiceless and to all who are included in this underrepresented identity group, she added.

In 2021, ICARE and Global Health Metrics introduced the Healthy Self Checkup tool to identify the potential for alcohol or drug abuse among employees before it has an effect on work performance. This tool takes employees five minutes to complete, and is also able to identify issues with depression, stress and sleep.

Related Article: Addressing Substance Abuse in the Remote Workplace

Where Are the Addicts in the Workplace?

It may come as a surprise to some that the vast majority of those who are addicted are holding down jobs. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence says that over 70% of people who are abusing illicit drugs in the US are employed, and that the majority of them are categorically binge drinkers. The most commonly abused illegal drugs in the workplace are marijuana and cocaine.

The National Safety Council reported that about 16% of employees have a substance abuse disorder. They also reported the $81 billion lost per year in the workplace results from three categories: absenteeism, healthcare costs and lost productivity. Another effect is theft. An estimated 80% of drug users fuel their drug use by stealing from their employer.

Drug abuse in the workplace can be a threat to public safety, impact job performance, and cause accidents that are a liability for employers. It can also negatively affect decision-making abilities, as well as create physically impairment. And it's not just the abuser who is at risk. Drug use in the workplace impacts those around the user, negatively affecting production, engagement and personal satisfaction.

Related Article: Dealing With the Mental Health Pandemic at Work

How Companies Can Address Addiction in the Workplace

Companies benefit from addressing addiction in the workplace and helping the addict get help without stigmatizing or ostracizing them. Many companies are incorporating drug and alcohol awareness into their employee assistance programs (EAPs) so that employees are able to address problems before they cause issues in the workplace.

The problem is addiction is a topic that nobody wants to openly discuss and issues can often only be resolved when they are brought out into the open.

“Unfortunately, because of stigma and fear, there is a culture of silence in the workplace about these issues," Merriwether said. "In particular, in some workplaces in general, and in some types of jobs in particular, alcohol is often very prevalent in the workplace and can also have a primary influence on workplace culture."

High performing organizations regularly encourage and support the creation and expansion of affinity and employee resource groups that help create a more inclusive workplace where employees feel safe to talk more openly about their challenges, Merriwether said. She pointed to San Francisco-based Salesforce's SoberForce as a case in point.

"In 2016, Salesforce banned office drinking and a year later CEO Mark Benioff wrote in an internal memo that 'alcohol is a drug and it is unfair for nondrinkers to see alcohol at work,'" Merriwether said.

The 'Sickness of Silence'

When there is a stigma associated with a condition, employees are afraid to talk about it with their employers. This "sickness of silence" is a result of fear and stigma associated with addiction in the workplace and makes employees less likely to proactively seek help, Merriwether said.

“Conversations are most often only initiated in response to an accident or critical incident that occurs … which requires an ‘intervention’ in the form of a direct conversation, or mandatory drug test,” Merriwether said.

Related Article: Your Teams Are Exhausted. Here's What Leaders Can Do

Companies Are Beginning to Talk About Addiction

The good news is that companies today are talking more openly than ever about addiction, said Rich Jones, executive vice president and executive director of Heritage CARES, a virtual support program provider. “Still not commonplace and there is still stigma involved," he said, "but the conversation is more front and center.”

Companies are also more openly discussing broader issues of mental health and stress management, which can lead to other conversations around substance abuse. Programs such as the one that Heritage CARES provides helps people struggling with stress, substance use and suicidal ideation, and companies are adding them to their existing EAPs.

"The problem is most employees don’t access their EAPs because those programs lean toward a formal process of diagnosis and labeling," Jones said. Online coaching programs offer a less threatening conversation to address workplace issues like stress management and anxiety, which helps steer employees to get the help they need through their EAP, he said.

Companies have many options when it comes to virtual support programs. Besides Heritage CARES, there is also PursueCare, Valley Hope TeleCare and Workit Health, among others. However a company chooses to support employees, it's important to recognize that addiction is an issue that affects companies of all sizes and across industries, Jones said.

"The one constant is leadership, which tends to be more progressive," he said. "They believe that the system needs to be fixed and they want to put action behind their promise to take care of their employees.”

Addiction in the workplace can cause reduced productivity, a decrease in employee engagement and lead to an increase in workplace accidents. To address the growing problem, companies should encourage discussion about drug and alcohol abuse and proactively work to ensure that employees have access to drug and alcohol treatment and mental health professionals without fear of repercussion.

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