Alcohol use and drug use affects nearly every workplace, reducing productivity and increasing absenteeism and accidents. In fact, alcohol and drug addictions cost U.S. businesses $81 billion in lost profits every year. And regardless of your industry or the demographics of your workforce, there is a very good chance your workplace is already dealing with the impact of workplace addictions.

It's in any employer's best interest to proactively deal with workplace addiction and, in particular, to make your workplace a positive environment for recovering addicts. This starts with establishing a drug-free work environment, but it can’t end there. (Learn more in 10 Essential Drug Testing Kits & Accessories For A Drug-Free Workplace). The reality is that addictions happen and you will have to deal with employees in recovery. Here are a few tips for doing it right.

Encourage a Drug-Free Workplace

Start with on-boarding and ensure that your workers are aware of both the effects of drug use and the support you have available for them. Establish a drug-free workplace policy that includes drug testing and repercussions for positive tests but also includes other measures that will actively discourage substance abuse and encourage recovery. These measures can include:

  • Educational efforts that clearly identify the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Information about company wellness, counselling and rehabilitation services
  • Adequate employee health insurance that includes substance abuse treatment

Identify Employees In Need

In order to offer assistance, you need to know who needs it. Identifying addicts is not easy but it can be critical to protecting all your employees as well as your business. Some addicts may demonstrate obvious signs including becoming agitated or aggressive, but many others will not demonstrate clear symptoms. There are a few things you and your managers can look for:

  • Sudden changes in personality or behavior
  • Demonstrated bad judgement or poor decision making
  • Reduced personal hygiene
  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Missed meetings, deadlines or appointments
  • Slower than normal decision making or work habits

Promoting A Supportive Culture

Once you have identified employees in need, it's critically important that they feel supported. Over 21 million people are struggling with addiction and the majority of them are in the workforce. Most of these workers are actively trying to manage their addictions. And while employers may have some legitimate concerns about the addiction-related behaviors such as theft or absenteeism, you can help your employees successfully beat their addictions simply by ensuring they feel supported and accepted.

Your employees and managers alike should understand that addiction is a medical condition. This does not mean that employees should not be held accountable for their actions, particularly if they refuse to seek help and continue to use drugs. It does mean building a workplace culture that approaches addiction like any other health condition. This encompasses everything from respecting your employee’s right to privacy to dealing with the office rumour mill.

Challenge Stereotypes and Stigma

Changing workplace culture means changing the conversation around recovery. The stigma that is often attached to recovering addicts is counterproductive and can make them more likely to try to hide their addictions and less likely to seek help. The cost of untreated addiction in the United States is estimated to be $510 billion and stigmatizing recovering addicts puts both your employees and your business at risk. Addiction is an illness that requires a long treatment and recovery period. There may be eventual relapses. However, recognizing the problem and seeking treatment for addiction is an extremely positive first step and should be celebrated as such. Changing the conversation means challenging the stereotypes and stigma that are often attached to employees suffering from addiction. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In a practical sense, you can challenge the stereotypes and stigma by bringing recovery into the open at your workplace. Lend out the conference room for 12-step or other group recovery programs. Consider on-site counselling if your budget allows it. Keep the lines of communication open. Promote both wellness and anti-stigma messages via email, the company website, Twitter or other social media.

Support After Treatment

Addictions are difficult to overcome, particularly over the long term, and your support should not end after treatment is completed. Understand that your employee may need additional support when they return to work. For some, this might mean a change to a position that is less stressful or less safety-sensitive. Others may need to use paid or unpaid leave to attend counselling sessions.

Consider establishing the following guidelines for dealing with your employee’s eventual return to work:

  • Draft a return-to-work agreement for your returning employee. This should outline your expectations for the employee, including compliance with your drug-free workplace policy. Include repercussions for failure to meet these expectations, including possible termination. Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from firing employees for substance abuse issues if they seek treatment.
  • Insist on confidentiality. While some of your employees might prefer to be open about their addiction issues, others may want to keep their problems private. Regardless, the choice should be theirs.
  • Consider raising the issue of addiction and mental health with your workforce. Ask them for ideas for creating a recovery friendly culture in your workplace. Not only is this likely to garner new ideas for you, but it will also increase trust and openness amongst staff and supervisors, particularly surrounding addiction and mental health.
  • Buy naloxone kits and train select workers on overdose intervention.
  • Focus on both prevention and recovery in equal measure.
  • Assign a peer or supervisor recovery champion who can assist or lend a sympathetic ear to the recovering employee

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)

EAPs are a proven method of assisting recovering employees and studies have suggested that workplaces that lack these programs experience more absenteeism, higher safety risks and reduced productivity. They are usually included as part of an employee benefits program and have the bonus of being available 24/7 to your employees through your chosen provider. Typically, the EAP will provide:

  • Education for employees and employers
  • Family support
  • Referral and advocacy for recovering workers
  • Legal and financial advice
  • Peer group programs or web-based programs
  • Employee re-entry policies following treatment
  • Regular progress reports and a liaison to company representatives

Assisting recovering addicts in your workplace requires a few changes to your company culture but it can have huge payoffs for your company both financially and in employee morale.