I was at a DuPage Health Department meeting recently where the Narcan program representatives reported that they performed 234 opioid reversals in the previous year. Said another way, the program saved lives 234 times. They showed a chart that summarized the locations of the rescues. While the majority of rescues were in houses and apartments, Twenty-two, or close to 10% were in workplaces. Our fellow employees are administering opioids in employee restrooms.
With some research, I discovered that one third of all employees are impacted by Substance Use Disorder (SUD), either by having the disease themselves or by having loved ones with it. To-date, most employers have not stepped up to help their employees. In fact, people who have SUD typically try to keep their condition secret for fear of repercussions, including potential termination.
The good news is that companies are in a great position to help employees. The additional good news is that supporting recovery can have substantial financial benefit to employers. Untreated SUD costs USA employers $81 billion per year.
Here are five ways to support recovery and reduce the harm of SUD in the workplace:
1. Update Your Drug Policy
Of course, employers must prohibit the use or possession of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. However, most workplace drug policies focus only on the punitive side and not on the restorative. Some employers even boast “zero tolerance” meaning an employee can be terminated if found in possession or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Punitive-only policies evolved from the mistaken believe that punishment is the best way to achieve a drug-free workplace. It’s not. Recovery is the best way to achieve a drug-free workplace. A punitive drug policy discourages employees from revealing the disease of SUD, and therefore inhibits a company’s ability to help the employee.
Certainly, there needs to be repercussions for drug or alcohol use at work. However, the policy can also be restorative, presenting treatment options for the employee. A workplace where employees feel secure in disclosing their condition and know that the employer will help, will be closer to drug-free than one where employees feel they must keep the disease hidden.
2. Remove Stigmatizing Language
Without intending so, the language often used in workplace policies and conversations stigmatizes people who suffer from SUD. Stigma is a barrier to treatment. The word “abuse”, for example, blames the illness entirely on the person, negating the fact that the disorder is a medical condition. Calling the condition a “drug habit” implies that willpower would be sufficient to stop.
Those are just a couple of examples. There are several websites that outline words to avoid and what to replace them with. One of the best is from Shatterproof. Here’s a summary:
|Addict, alcoholic, drug abuser||Person with Substance Use Disorder|
|Clean||Abstinent, not actively using|
|Former or reformed addict or alcoholic||Person in recovery|
3. Review Your EAP
If you provide an Employee Assistance Program, take a look to see how they handle SUD-related issues. When an employee calls an EAP, the EAP should know how what questions to ask to understand the situation, and if there’s an SUD issue, the EAP should be able to offer short-term counselling, and be able to refer the employee to longer-term counselling, to treatment, or to peer support.
EAP’s provide a safe place for the employee to discuss the issue and can help reduce the harm of SUD by providing options for the employee.
A recovery friendly workplace trains supervisors on how to recognize and support employees whose job performance may be affected by SUD or who self-identify as having the disease. Supervisors understand the employer’s policies and programs, and they are aware of legally sensitive areas and the corresponding limitations of their role. Similarly, employees are trained on what the employer’s policies are and how the employer will help employees or their loved ones.
Since 10% of opioid overdose reversals are happening in the workplace, employers should themselves have Narcan available and include Narcan administration in their training programs.
Closely related to training is communications. Make it known to your employees that you are recovery friendly. Communications can include all-hands meetings where the supportive polices are discussed, emails from the executives describing the organization’s interest in supporting recovery, posters in lunchrooms, and even personal stories from leaders in recovery describing their own journeys. Some employers announce that they are launching an initiative to become recovery friendly and send out a communication on progress monthly.
The communications make it clear to employees that the organization values recovery. They also reinforce the non-stigmatizing language and attitudes.
Our county, and in fact our nation, are waking up to the need to minimize harm and support recovery. However, this is not just a responsibility for the public sector. Since most people who have SUD are employees, workplaces have a great opportunity to support recovery and reduce harm.
Louis Lamoureux is the Founder of Recovery Friendly Workplaces Inc, a consulting firm dedicated to helping employers update their policies, practices, and benefits programs to support recovery from Substance Use Disorder. He is the author of the bestselling novel, Granville Street, which explores a fateful week in the lives of four people impacted by the opioid epidemic.