Each year, addiction costs American businesses an estimated $276 billion.

Beyond the financial impact, accidents and fatalities produce tragic consequences. In fact, one out of 10 employees has a substance use disorder in his or her lifetime.

As the substance use disorder epidemic spreads, businesses experience low productivity, low employee morale, increase in health-care costs, absenteeism, injuries and fatalities. The U.S. Department of Labor reports more than 500 million workdays are lost to addiction annually.

However, there are practical steps and solutions available to help employers confront and reduce the significant impact of addiction in the workplace.

Defining addiction

First, it is essential for employers and employees to understand that addiction to drugs and alcohol, clinically known as substance use disorder, is a treatable brain disease, characterized by a progressive and problematic pattern of substance use leading to significant impairment.

Supporting the effort to define substance use disorder and offer solutions, the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States released a landmark report on the country’s addiction epidemic in 2017, “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.” The report findings are expansive, significant and full of hope for all those affected by this major public health challenge, including employers and their employees.

Perhaps the most important finding of the report identifies addiction as “a chronic neurological disorder” that must be recognized and included in the health-care system, requiring clinical treatment and ongoing supportive care.

Another key piece of the report provides considerable evidence showing that prevention, treatment, and recovery policies and programs really do work. It confirms that high quality, accessible treatment programs can significantly reduce the effects of substance use disorder on workplaces and help employees find productive recovery.

Defeating stigma

Often people living with addiction will avoid reaching out to their employer, fearing they will lose their job. This deadly decision is the result of the stigma of addiction. Stigma prevents millions of employees from seeking treatment for their substance use disorder. Although addiction is a chronic brain disease that requires treatment, the stigma fosters fear of reaching out for help, ultimately costing lives.

“No physical or psychiatric condition is more associated with social disapproval and discrimination than substance dependence,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance. “Stigma is a major factor preventing individuals from seeking and completing addiction treatment.”

Changing attitudes and misconceptions in the workplace and among management can significantly reduce the dangerous stigma that prevents co-workers from reaching out for help.

Warning signs of addiction

There are several warning signs that can indicate an employee may be suffering with an substance use disorder, including:

• Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual

• Changes in productivity, attitude and focus

• Increase in absenteeism and late arrivals

• Sudden weight loss or weight gain

• Deterioration of physical appearance, personal grooming habits

• Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing

• Tremors, slurred speech or impaired coordination

Developing policies, procedures and EAPs

It is essential for company leadership to learn and understand HR/workplace policies, insurance benefits, privacy laws, and employee guidelines and rights such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

To help ease navigating legal, benefits and policy burdens, more and more employers are providing employee assistance programs. Employee assistance programs are cost-effective tools to mitigate these risks. Employee assistance programs can help employers reduce absences, workers’ compensation claims, health-care costs, accidents and grievances. In addition, they can address safety and security issues, improve employee productivity and engagement, and reduce costs related to employee turnover.

Although employee assistance programs provide referrals, resources and counsel for employees and their families on a breadth of issues and concerns, the employee assistance program system was founded to find successful treatment for addiction through thoughtful assessments, informed referrals and ongoing support.

Some substance use disorder treatment providers work with countless employee assistance programs across the country to provide the best quality care available for their employees and all patients. From local businesses and community organizations to large corporations, employee assistance programs have become efficient, effective tools for helping employees receiving effective treatment for addiction, managing the processes and communications, working with insurance providers and relieving management from oversight of an employee’s treatment process.

Reducing employee substance use disorder can help employers decrease health-care costs, reduce workplace injuries and improve productivity. Services such as employee assistance programs can help assess, refer and manage employee substance use disorder treatment and any needs to support their recovery.

Ongoing treatment and recovery

When the employee completes initial treatment, it is critical that he or she returns to a supportive work environment. Ideally, employees who have participated in and finished treatment programs return to the workplace sober and “in recovery.”

Recovery is an ongoing process where the employee continues to work a program outside of treatment, such as attending 12-Step meetings, outpatient therapy or other continuing care programs. Ongoing participation in a recovery program is essential to long-term sobriety.

Gill is an outpatient program director for Valley Hope, has an independent license in mental health and is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.

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