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Substance Abuse, Employers, and Recovery-Friendly Workplaces

Nov 06, 2021 Decorative image

Faced with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the last half century, U.S. employers are challenged to find and retain workers. At the same time, Addiction Center reports that nearly 21 million Americans are addicted to at least one substance, preventing many people from participating in the labor pool.

Given these facts, employers may need to consider the impact a zero-tolerance substance abuse policy could have on their ability to hire and retain otherwise qualified employees. While some businesses cannot accommodate individuals in active recovery, others do have the opportunity to create recovery-friendly workplaces.

Policy Questions to Ponder

Especially in industries where addiction rates are high, creating a recovery-friendly workplace could be a win-win for employers needing workers and workers eager to become employed members of society again. However, HR, risk management and legal departments should work together closely to develop policies that ensure the safety of the entire workforce and do not run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and comparable state laws.

Here are some questions employers should consider:

  • What accommodations is the company prepared to make to support the employee’s continued recovery? For example, will the employee be allowed time off during work to attend treatment sessions or group support meetings? If yes, will the time be paid, or unpaid? Will the company’s health insurance plan cover the cost of medications used to help treat certain types of addictions
  • What behaviors will not be accommodated, and how will those be communicated? Poor work performance and unapproved absences could be examples of this.
  • Given that relapses are part of recovery, what will happen if an employee relapses and doesn’t report it? What will happen if an employee relapses and self-reports it? Employers could consider posting a document in the work environment noting the differences between a failed drug screen and self-report of substance abuse (asking for help).
  • What should supervisors do if they suspect a recovering addict has relapsed? What shouldn’t they do? Consider using your employee assistance program (EAP) or a local recovery resource to train supervisors on how to properly address these situations.
  • Should the company adopt a second-chance agreement? This could include a medical assessment and physician recommendation, an agreement to adhere to the physician recommendation, consent forms to allow for reporting to the employer and a set timeline for continued verification (i.e., drug testing).
  • What type of EAP will the company offer? Most add-on EAPs (telephonic-based referral services) are not well equipped to handle a recovery crisis. Perhaps a more robust EAP offering will be needed.
  • What training and support will managers and others need in order to understand the company’s position and support the policies being put in place? How often will training need to be repeated?

When substance abuse is regarded as a medical issue to be treated instead of a behavioral issue to be punished, the answers to most of these questions change. Employers may also need to consider adding on-site services such as on-demand counseling, peer support groups that meet during the workday and drug testing. The money spent on these programs may be offset by the benefit of increased productivity by a larger workforce.

Helping Those Who Support Recovery

For an employee living with a substance abuser, especially if the addict has recurring relapses or crises moments, it’s often vital to seek counseling and learn what is positive support and what is enabling behavior. It is also important to understand how to help someone without sacrificing one’s own physical and mental well-being.

While a standard EAP may not be the most effective help for someone in recovery, these programs can be very effective in helping family members and other individuals navigate difficult situations. Make sure employees know if you offer this important benefit.

What’s on Your Mind?

Substance abuse and recovery-friendly workplaces are just two of the many topics we help employers address. To discuss your workplace wellness questions, contact your local Hylant health strategist. We are here to help.

The above information does not constitute advice. Always contact your employee benefits broker or trusted advisor for insurance-related questions.

Author Heather Sittler