How Employers Can be the Lifeline for Addicted Employees

An estimated 14.8 million Americans who are employed are addicted to drugs or alcohol.  That’s good news!  How so? Because those are the employed addicts, and with a team effort they can beat addiction while maintaining employment.

While that means 70% of addicts are employed, addiction can lead to workplace difficulties, including:

  • Tardiness
  • Absenteeism
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Compromised/poor decision-making
  • Poor concentration
  • High turnover/instability

Additionally, addiction, including cycles of use and withdrawal, can cause mood swings or emotional upsets, which can create a negative working environment for all.

Despite these concerns, it is still in everyone’s best interest to maintain employment and help an addict through recovery.

You may be the lifeline for your addicted employee.  Here’s how.

Step 1: Understand, Don’t Judge

Addiction is a chronic, but treatable, disease.  The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.  Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.”

Why is it helpful to see addiction this way?  Because when you understand the disease of addiction you don’t judge, any more than you would punish an individual with hypertension from consuming dangerously high-salt foods (a chronic disease which, incidentally, has comparable recovery rates).

Addiction requires treatment and then long-term management, just like hypertension or asthma.

Step 2: Establish a Safe Space

Some forms of addiction are illegal, such as using illicit drugs.  Sometimes addiction leads an individual to commit crimes, such as when an alcoholic drives under the influence of alcohol (though, of course, alcohol consumption itself is not illegal).

Regardless of whether or not an individual has committed a crime, providing a safe space for someone to self-identify as an addict and seek care is the best approach.

What’s more, insurance plans, for the most part, cover treatment.  You can make that fact known in the workplace and encourage anyone struggling with addiction to privately make the choice to get care.

Step 3: Don’t be an Enabler Either

Just because you want to provide a safe space, doesn’t mean you can’t still hold to your workplace expectations.  Go ahead and require drug-testing, if that is part of your company operations.  Go ahead and demand that employees come to work on-time and sober.

“Enabling” means to further addiction or give permission for addiction, often unintentionally.  If you make excuses for an employee or hold that person to different standards than other employees, you may unintentionally be perpetuating addiction.

Addicts do often look to an outside individual as being responsible for addiction, and taking responsibility for addiction is part of the treatment process.  Be sure that you are not enabling an employee, while at the same time you do not cast judgment on someone’s illness.

Clearly, labeling requirements, while allowing access to care, is the key.

(For further reading see “5 Tips for Creating a Supportive Work Environment for Recovering Addicts”).

Step 4: For What It’s Worth…

If becoming a lifeline for an addicted employee sounds like work, consider the value to your organization.  While your demonstrated loyalty may not translate into employee stability, it very well could save you from the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours involved in hiring and training a replacement (an estimated 6-9 months’ worth of that employee’s salary).

Addicts in recovery also learn real-life skills that translate to higher function as an employee: prioritization and time management, communication and cooperation skills, are all part of effective rehabilitation programs.

What’s more, you may save a life…which is priceless.

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