When people think of disabilities, physical limitations such as hearing impairment or back ailments may come to mind. But a less visible, though costly, problem ranks as one of the top 10 workplace disabilities in the country: Drug and alcohol abuse.
In fact, businesses that fail to recognize addiction as a disability pay a huge price. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 75 percent of drug users are employed, and drug and alcohol abuse costs businesses more than $100 billion a year. Employees who use drugs cost employers about twice as much in medical and workers' compensation claims as their drug-free coworkers, and alcoholism alone is responsible for 500 million lost workdays per year.
Employers should work with employees to help resolve drug and alcohol-related problems, says Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation, and a pioneer in the battle against drugs in the workplace. In the '80s, she founded one of the first companies that implemented drug-free workplace plans that included drug and alcohol abuse policies, testing, rehabilitation, education and support.
Should Employees Reveal Their Addictions?
Fay typically advises addicted employees to come forward -- a particularly difficult step for those who fear their employers will simply cut them loose. The law isn't always on the employee's side.
“I've been asked this numerous times throughout the years, and I always say that I encourage employees who have a drug or alcohol problem to voluntarily step forward and admit they have a problem,” Fay says. “I've probably dealt with thousands of people who have told me the hardest part was coming forward, but the best part was admitting there was a problem and getting the help they needed.”
Elena Carr, drug policy coordinator with the office of the assistant secretary for policy at the US Department of Labor, and director of the Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace program, urges employers to be open to assisting workers who have problems. “I've found that employees who seek and get assistance from employers are more loyal and become more valuable employees, because they appreciate the support given to them,” she says.
Still, not all employers are understanding, says Joy A. Duncan, president and CEO of the Council on Alcohol and Drugs. While workers with drug and alcohol problems have some protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, only those employees who work for a certified drug-free workplace can get assistance without fear of consequences, says Duncan. In right-to-work states that do not offer special protection to workers, an employer that is not a certified drug-free workplace can terminate employment for almost any reason, including an employee's dependence on drugs or alcohol.
“If the employer is a drug-free workplace, then the employee will need to review the company's policy,” Duncan says. “Many businesses that choose to be drug-free workplaces will allow some type of schedule change for the employee when necessary. If the company has a drug-free workplace policy, the managers of that company are educated in substance abuse and addiction issues. These people will be more understanding of the situation if a positive change is being made.”
In a workplace that is not certified as drug-free, the HR department or the supervisor may dictate what happens to an employee who reveals he has a drug or alcohol problem.
Advice for Managers and Employees Who Need Help
Managers should remember they are not expected to diagnose or treat those who may be battling drug or alcohol abuse, Carr says. Their goal should be to direct employees to get help through an employee assistance program, if available, or other outlets such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
“At a minimum, businesses should maintain a resource file from which employees can access information about community-based resources, treatment programs and help lines,” Carr says.
And what about the employee who wants help? “I strongly insist a drug or alcohol abuser stay involved in an aftercare program, such as attending AA meetings or support groups,” she says.
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