Frontline Supervisor: Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Frontline Supervisor: Substance Abuse in the Workplace

On 4 Apr 2016, in Management, Workplace, substance abuse

Each month, "The Balance Sheet" provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that's important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people.

Q. Periodically, we have employees incur back injuries on the job. Some get pain medications, which I know can be addicting. Although I haven’t noticed any employees affected by drug dependency, what are the symptoms?

A. Addiction to prescription painkillers, particularly the opioids, is a growing problem. One recent study showed that one in 12 injured workers using this class of painkillers became addicted. Addiction to pain medications is also linked to lower productivity, presenteeism (coming to work affected by health issues or severe troubles) and severe absenteeism. Those addicted to prescription painkillers miss 50 percent more work than non-using peers. Employees who become addicted to opioids have more difficulty returning to work as well. When they return, there is an increased risk of accidents, and they may illegally share medications with friends, become addicted to other opiates like heroin, “doctor shop” to find a willing prescriber, steal from the employer, sleep on the job and suffer domestic problems resulting from addictive behavior in the home. BJC EAP is your key resource for intervention when performance and attendance problems emerge with recovering injured workers, no matter what the cause.

Q. One of our employees was arrested for dealing cocaine in our town, but I never saw signs or symptoms of drug use. In fact, job performance was strong. What did I miss? This employee never looked disheveled. He was very bright and confident.

A. Although there are signs and symptoms of cocaine use, it can be difficult to spot. Assuming your employee both sold and used cocaine during work hours, there may have been performance or attendance issues that conflicted with outside activities. A cocaine user or dealer could appear as a strong and confident person. Unless there was wildly unusual behavior suggesting toxicity, this would not justify a reasonable suspicion test. Don’t confuse drug dealing with low income or a disheveled appearance. Drug-dealing individuals are usually not hurting for cash. Many, if not most, are privileged, middle class and the suppliers and supporters of their friends’ drug habits. They don’t deal on street corners. Always the common denominator for recognizing the most subtle forms of drug abuse is how close you are to your employee during the workday and how frequently you directly observe his or her behavior.

Q. I am sure there are employees in our work organization using illicit substances. I understand enabling, but what causes people to enable when they know how bad they’d feel if a terrible drug/alcohol-related crisis resulted or someone got killed?

A. Most people understand enabling as protecting, covering up and making excuses for a coworker or friend with an addiction problem, but stopping enabling is not as easy as it sounds. To stop enabling a friend or coworker with a severe personal problem requires making choices that may create significant stress, guilt and feelings of loss. The decision requires the enabler to experience personal sacrifice associated with changing their behavior. To no longer enable, therefore, is not a simple decision. It can have life-changing consequences for the enabler, and these are difficult for most people to face. The enabler usually manages this choice with procrastination, denial, minimization (“It’s bad but not that bad,” “She’s a functional alcoholic,” etc.) and projection (“It’s not my job to deal with it”). The result is cover-up and protection of the drug user.



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