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How to support your employees in substance abuse recovery

The ongoing opioid crisis, along with rising mental health concerns following the pandemic, have put the U.S. workforce in a precarious position. Simply put, many people are dealing with substance abuse disorders. A study released earlier this year by applied business research firm Fors Marsh urges employers to consider their role in helping employees in recovery.

4 relevant actions

The recommendations in the 2022 Workplace Recovery Survey spring from some daunting statistics. The report states that one in 11 employees in the United States is living with a substance abuse disorder, and more than 14 million Americans overall are in some stage of recovery.

Historically, an employer’s response to a worker exhibiting signs of substance abuse has been to discipline or even terminate the individual. The results of the survey, however, indicate that a far better approach is to take four relevant actions:

  1. Educate employees. A long-standing problem for employers is that, even if they offer a great benefits package, participants may not know about all its features. The study found that fewer than one-third of respondents knew their health benefits covered substance abuse treatment and recovery support. Be sure you’re regularly educating and reminding employees, through multiple communication channels, of the relevant benefits you offer.
  2. Communicate openly. Your supervisors are a critical resource for helping workers step out of the shadows and seek assistance. Almost 50% of survey respondents disclosed that they’d be willing to speak to a supervisor or manager about issues related to substance abuse. Therefore, train supervisors to initiate and conduct such discussions properly and empathetically. Be sure they’re well-versed in your organization’s benefits, as well as your PTO and leave policies.
  3. Encourage openness and de-stigmatization. Organizational culture can play a major role in whether employees seek help. If substance abuse is viewed as a sign of weakness or something to be embarrassed about, employees are more likely to try to hide the problem. This can lead to conflicts, mistakes, accidents and absenteeism. The report suggests holding on-site support meetings to encourage inclusiveness, discourage discrimination and normalize recovery.
  4. Facilitate hiring as well as retention. Most employers’ efforts related to helping those in recovery focus on retaining employees. However, many people battling substance abuse are looking to reenter the workforce. The report recommends that employers reassess their hiring processes to make it easier for qualified applicants in recovery to get hired. You may need to eliminate or revise policies that have traditionally served as barriers to employment.

The Fors Marsh survey is far from alone in urging employers to take supportive, rather than disciplinary, action toward employees and applicants needing help or in recovery. In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance reminding employers that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people being treated for and recovering from opioid use disorder. Furthermore, on its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages employers to consider creating a formal Workplace Supported Recovery Program “to prevent substance misuse, reduce stigma, and encourage recovery.”

Cost-effective measures

Naturally, every employer’s risks and optimal approaches to coping with the negative effects of substance abuse will differ depending on its size, industry, location and other factors. To get a sense of how severely the problem is affecting your organization, you may want to conduct an anonymous employee survey and hold frank discussions with supervisors. Once you’ve established your risk level, our firm can help you identify the costs associated with various response measures.

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