What if all your workers had a history of substance abuse?
By: Terri Dougherty
Publication: LivingRight®: Health & Wellness Awareness Program
Date Posted: 08/12/2017
Workers are testing positive on drug tests at a higher rate than at any time in the past 12 years, according to an analysis of workforce drug test results by Quest Diagnostics.
The latest statistics from Quest show that 4.2 percent of workers tested positive for drugs in 2016 – a 5 percent increase over the 2015 rate of 4 percent.
In a separate study, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 1 in 10 people in the United States, or 27 million Americans, use illegal drugs. The survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also found that about 25 percent engaged in binge drinking (having four or five drinks within a few hours) in the past month, and 6. 5 percent are heavy alcohol users.
Those can be frightening statistics to an employer, as the odds are that some of your workers are dealing with a substance abuse problem.
Those numbers don’t surprise Michelle Devine-Giese, president of STEP Industries in Neenah, Wisconsin. She’s well aware that a portion of the U.S. workforce is dealing with substance abuse, and knows her employees have coped with the issue.
All 80 transitional employees at STEP, and 12 of 13 staff members, are in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. For more than 35 years, the contract packaging firm has provided a drug- and alcohol-free work environment for people in recovery who are looking to establish a solid work history, find educational opportunities, and rebuild their lives.
With so many workers who have faced addiction, it might be expected that Devine-Giese would take a skeptical approach when enforcing the organization’s drug-free workplace policy. However, she has found that the best way to support her workers’ sobriety, and encourage people to ask for help when it’s needed, is through trust.
“We’re going to trust you until you give us a reason not to trust you,” Devine-Giese said. “If we see changes in behavior, changes in look or attitude, those give us reason to question what’s going on.”
A supervisor who sees signs of substance abuse or a change in behavior will initiate a conversation with the employee. Signs that trigger a conversation could include bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, deterioration of work, or avoiding others.
“Often it’s a change in behaviors or a pattern,” Devine-Giese said. “How did a person react to a situation six months ago and how do they react now? Is their reaction out of the norm for that situation?”
When the supervisor sits down with the employee, their conversation focuses on the employee’s actions and the signs that indicate something isn’t quite right.
“We might say, ‘Your attendance has been changing recently, is there something going on we’re not aware of?’” Giese said. “We give them a chance to talk about what’s going on, not automatically assuming they’ve got to be using.”
If the employee can’t come up with a reason for the behavioral change, other than perhaps, “I don’t like Mondays,” the staff lets the employee know that a drug test is going to be done to make sure that substance abuse is not the issue. Before the test is done, the employee gets one more chance to admit to using and ask for help.
“We ask, ‘Is there anything you want to talk to us about before we do that?’ If they admit to using before the test, we’re going to continue working with them,” she said. “If they deny, and we test and it’s positive, they’re going to be terminated.”
This approach gives a worker who admits to a relapse another chance to work out a plan with a recovery coach. The employee might need to return to recovery group meetings, attend a recovery program, or get a new sponsor.
Dealing with attendance
The non-profit’s trust-based approach is also reflected in its attendance policy. Employees can use their personal time off for any reason, and Devine-Giese has heard plenty of excuses for missing work, from oversleeping to tattoo and piercing infections to being drowsy because of cold medicine.
Once a person exceeds the time off limits for a reason other than medical leave, the employee’s evaluation period is extended. The next steps are suspension and termination.
“We can’t enable,” Devine-Giese said. “We want to give them the leeway to make smart decisions. We have lots of people who never use any of their time, and have people who go to border every time.”
To help workers stay on track, they meet with recovery coaches. “When they are evaluated we look at their goals,” Devine-Giese said. “Maybe they want to move up and could do that if they worked on their attendance.”
While some test the company’s limits, STEP employees consistently prove that workers in recovery are dependable. The company’s vice president has been sober for 19 years, and its Milwaukee manager for 18. The organization’s transitional employees may have felony convictions for drug possession, manufacturing, or delivery, but have stayed clean, remained employed, and are enrolled in technical college training courses.
Devine-Giese, who has been sober for 21 years and started as a transitional employee at STEP, has missed only a handful of days in two decades, and those were due to illness or surgery. She is confident that an employer’s commitment to a worker in need of substance abuse services will pay off.
“You’re going to retain an awesome employee in the long run,” she said.
Because a commitment to working with employees who need help with substance abuse issues can pay off with retention of well-trained workers, STEP Industries is looking to share its expertise in this area. It is creating a service for employers that would provide one-on-one help and assistance to workers struggling with substance abuse issues.
“We can give them back an employee who is more stable,” Devine-Giese said, adding that retaining the employee also helps a company eliminate hiring and training costs.
Have a plan
Few employers have the same workforce population as Devine-Giese, but any company can support a drug-free workplace with alcohol-free events such as a book club or walking group. Platters of cupcakes could be placed on tables at company parties rather than bottles of wine.
To help workers when they need recovery services for themselves or family members, employers should have a plan in place and be ready to offer support when an employee asks for help.
“If someone has cancer, they’re going to go to HR and tell them about it. HR will say, ‘OK bring us documentation, what do you need?’ People in the office will bring them a card or a cake,” Devine-Giese says. “But if you go to HR and say, ‘I’m hooked on heroin’ – what’s going to happen?”
A commitment to supporting workers coping with substance abuse issues starts at the top, she notes. A policy that emphasizes recovery can encourage workers to step forward when assistance is needed.
“Be open to supporting employees with options, as opposed to being punitive,” Devine-Giese suggests. “It’s a disease and people need support and help. An employer can be an instrumental part of recovery.”
For help on educating your employees on healthier lifestyles and habits, which can help your company control insurance costs and employee attrition, click here to take a free trial of the LivingRight®: Health & Wellness Awareness Program Newsletter.