Why You Should Have A Substance Abuse Policy Now

The pandemic accelerated substance abuse issues for many, and as employees return to the office, it’s more important than ever to know how to handle the challenge, says Tim Stein, VP of human capital at American Addiction Centers.
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Substance abuse can be a very real problem within the workplace, for both employees and employers, says Tim Stein, vice president of human capital at American Addiction Centers based in Brentwood, Tennessee. Stein shares how HR leaders can best handle the issue both proactively and when problems arise. The keys: support, empathy and understanding.

How can CHROS support employees who may be returning to the office with addiction struggles that they did not have pre-pandemic?

Living through a pandemic has been extremely challenging for everyone, especially those dealing with addiction. During lock down, one in three Americans were more likely to drink alcohol during working hours. Everyday habits and daily routines changed dramatically for many workers, and for some, that included an increased consumption of drugs and alcohol.

As employees begin to return to the office, CHROs may be inclined to address the issue of employee substance use from a policy perspective, resulting in disciplinary action for the employee. However, there is a lot of value in approaching employee substance use with support, empathy and understanding. Employees are the most valuable asset to any organization and investing in their health can go a long way in demonstrating your commitment to employee well-being and helping them perform at their highest level.

CHROs should rethink employee substance use policies and embrace a culture centered on empathy and second chances. If HR suspects an employee has an issue, offer resources and the option to seek treatment before taking immediate disciplinary action. Providing support could be the difference between losing a high-performing employee and giving them an opportunity to get the treatment they deserve.

For CHROs unfamiliar with addiction treatment, consider calling a local treatment center to learn about their addiction treatment programs and timelines. Doing so will give you a better understanding of the type of support available to your employees who may be struggling with the disease of addiction, and it will also help you identify a facility that works well with your company’s health insurance.

How can CHROs reduce the stigma of addiction in the workplace?

The stigma around addiction is strongly linked to a lack of education and understanding. Addiction is a brain disease, not a character flaw, yet 76 percent of people believe that addiction is fully or partially a choice.

CHROs should consider offering training to employees on what addiction is and how it impacts the workplace. Educating employees on the reasons workers turn to alcohol and drugs and sharing treatment options can not only help reduce stigma, but also prevent employee substance misuse from occurring in the first place.

Another important way to prevent and reduce stigma is to speak up and normalize mental health conversations. Creating a workplace culture where employees don’t fear losing their job or feel ashamed talking about their mental health struggles will be a key aspect for CHROs to reduce stigma around addiction.

How can CHROs develop a successful policy that addresses addiction in the workplace?

Employers should develop a clearly outlined policy for when employees may be struggling with substance use—how use will impact their job, what they can do to get help, what to do when workers suspect a colleague is struggling, what to do if an employee has to take time off for treatment and more.

Critical aspects of this policy include encouraging open-door communication between employees and management, and educating employees that addiction is not a moral deficiency, it’s not a result of a character flaw and it doesn’t mean that the employee is a bad person. Addiction is a brain disease. The policy should also explain to employees that they will not be terminated if they need treatment, but will include a “reasonable suspicion” section that outlines specific and observable behaviors such as odors, movements, eyes, speech, emotions, actions, inactions, etc. This is key because the act of sitting down an employee whom we presume is using is a very serious and sensitive event, and HR leaders should not do this if unnecessary.

Training for management and leadership teams to recognize the signs of addiction, as well as how to appropriately address the matter with HR, is also a critical component to implementing a successful policy. Management is often on the front lines of employee interaction and will be the ones who observe the behavior that leads to suspicion of substance use.

CHROs can also consider implementing employee assistance programs into their policy. EAPs are work-based initiatives that offer free and private assessments, counseling and follow-up services to employees having substance use issues that might be related to their job.

At the end of the day, the most effective policies are centered on empathy and compassion for the employee.

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