The Reality of Addiction in the Workplace
Addiction permeates all aspects of an individual’s life – it affects their health, their relationships, their emotional well-being and it can also impact their work. Approximately 77% of individuals struggling with addiction are employed. Employees suffering from an addiction function at about two thirds of their capacity and are 3.5 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident compared to employees without an addiction. Research has shown that employed individuals seeking help for their addictions reported that prior to entering treatment, they were absent, late or unproductive 34-43% of working days, because of their addiction. This reveals that at least once in about every three days, the employee’s addiction is impacting their work performance. This translates into considerable costs for employers, not to mention the negative impact on workplace morale and safety. As a result, it’s important to consider and understand the role of the workplace and the employer in the recovery process. Recently, Canada launched new standards for mental health and safety in the workplace. This important initiative is aimed at helping to reduce some of the stigma associated with mental health problems – including addiction.
Why is it Difficult for Employees to Ask for Help?
It can be difficult for an employee to reach out and ask for help, especially at work. Sometimes, this difficulty is a result of a perceived lack of support from employers or a sense of shame the employee might feel about the addiction. Nonetheless, it is important for employers to understand that assisting employees with addiction problems to reach out for help not only benefits the employee in terms of their physical, emotional, and mental health, it also benefits the organization.
The Benefits of Addiction Treatment – To an Employee and the Organization
When our mental health is good, we are able to cope with the hassles and stressors of everyday life. We are purposeful and productive. But our mental health is poor, it can impact a variety of aspects of our lives. When someone is suffering from mental health problems or illness, such as a substance abuse problem or other type of addiction, the impact on the individual can be more pervasive and severe. Co-workers may perceive these types of individuals as difficult or unreliable, and this can create a very unpleasant work environment. When mental health or other medical conditions become so severe, the individual may have to take a leave from work for an extended period of time. This can escalate disability costs, benefits utilization, replacement costs and costs associated with lost productivity. If the individual’s underlying mental health problems are not addressed, the likelihood of the individual experiencing problems at work again is probably high. However, with adequate intervention and an ongoing treatment strategy, someone suffering from a mental health illness such as an addiction can experience good mental health and an improved quality of life.
How Employers Can Help?
The Mental Health Commission of Canada has recommended steps that employers can take to meaningfully impact psychological health and safety in the workplace. Some of these include health promotion and prevention of psychological issues at work, early identification of psychological problems and optimal treatment of mental health conditions to reduce disability and to support a return to work strategy.
Cost/Benefit of Addiction Treatment
Recent research has suggested that employer involvement – especially when it comes to employee addiction issues, can benefit both the employee and the organization’s bottom line. For example, outcome study research reveals significant improvements in work-related absenteeism of 76%, tardiness of 91% and productivity of 76%, six months after completing residential addiction treatment. This translates into a savings of approximately $6,447 per year for an employee who makes the Canadian average hourly wage of $26.10. What is of particular interest however, is that with employer involvement (either through referral or treatment funding), employees reported half as many days absent, late and unproductive because of the addiction in the six months prior to entering treatment. Therefore, this translates into half the cost incurred by the organization before the employee sought treatment. This finding suggests that organizations that foster a work environment that promotes psychological health and support addiction treatment, can expect to experience savings not only associated with the employee’s return to work as a more productive employee, but the employer can also expect to experience a savings in the time period before the employee even enters treatment.
These results could possibly be explained by the impact of an organization’s culture on workplace behaviour. An organization that openly promotes and enhances psychological health at work, would probably be associated with a culture that is noticeably different than one that does not make psychological health and wellness a priority. Organizations that assist in an employee’s addiction treatment are re-affirming their investment in that employee by providing support and mental health services referral. These types of organizations are probably likely to have well-established substance use and attendance management policies as well as provide training and education for managers and staff. These factors would impact substance use issues in the workplace and probably minimize the employee’s shame associated with reaching out for help with an addiction problem.
Early Intervention for Best Results
What makes the establishment of wellness programs even more imperative, is that research has demonstrated that individuals struggling with an addiction, on average wait thirteen and a half years before entering residential treatment. The goal therefore is, to intervene early with an employee who has a substance use or behavioural addiction problem, before it progresses and worsens over time. By establishing a non-punitive, supportive organizational culture involved in the psychological well-being of their employees, an organization can minimize the potential escalating costs associated with employees and their problematic substance use and behaviour.
Treatment Benefits beyond Absenteeism, Tardiness and Productivity
While the above-mentioned research has evaluated some of the costs and benefits associated with addiction in the workplace, employers should not limit their evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of treatment based solely on workers’ absenteeism, tardiness and productivity. The economic benefit of addiction treatment extends beyond these variables to include reduced on-the-job errors, accidents and injuries, and reduced disability costs. Other benefits include improved morale, decreased conflict among workers and reduced costs associated with dismissal, hiring and training. Depending on the workplace context, other potential benefits can also include reduced legal liabilities and minimizing potential negative impacts on organizational reputation and trust between stakeholders and clients. However it is understandable that becoming involved in employees’ psychological well-being is not an easy feat for employers and when performance is affected, it’s difficult to have “the tough talk.” This is where adequate training and education for managers and employees would help organizations to overcome this potential barrier.
The “Bottom-Line” and Beyond
Appealing to “the bottom line” and outlining the economic benefits of addiction treatment has shown to be an effective way to engage employers in the recovery of their employees’ addiction. Employment legislation provides an even further incentive for employers to be involved. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a primary neurological disease affecting brain reward, motivation, memory and its related circuitry. Because it is a chronic brain disease, addiction requires treatment and managing over a lifetime – not unlike other chronic diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Addiction can be as debilitating as any other illness and is classified as a disability by Canadian employment legislation. It is for these reasons as well, that it is important to assist employees in their recovery. Common barriers such as shame, organizational denial, and enabling behaviours of coworkers can prevent employees from seeking help for this medical and psychological problem. Employers need to understand the ways that their organizations may perpetuate these barriers and appreciate that employer involvement in the recovery process is beneficial for both the employee and the organization. In addition to the economic benefits reaped by the organization and the numerous gains made by the employee receiving treatment, employers might consider their involvement in their employees’ psychological health and wellness as benefiting society at large. For example, researchers have identified benefits such as reduced healthcare costs and crime rates that coincide with addiction treatment. Effective addiction treatment that includes long-term continuing care and support from family and employers is a mutually beneficial solution to a problem that often permeates a variety of aspects of an individual’s life – including their work. So when it comes to your employees and addiction – it is your business.
By Simone Arbour
Arbour, S., Gavrysh, I., Hambley, J. M., Tse, A., Ho, V. & Bell, M. L. (in press). Addiction treatment and work-related outcomes. Examining the impact of employer involvement and substance of choice on absenteeism, tardiness and productivity. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health.
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