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Frontline Supervisor: Substance Abuse and the Workplace

Frontline Supervisor: Substance Abuse and the Workplace

On 19 Nov 2014, 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. One of our reputable employees was hospitalized and later shared his story of addiction to heroin. I was floored. The employee never showed any symptoms and didn’t look anything like a street person. There was an absenteeism problem, but I never dreamed it was drugs. Is this rare?

A. For decades, drug-injecting addicts have been one of the most stigmatized groups in society. Three out of every 100 adults in the U.S. have reported using heroin, according to government research. Many heroin addicts have positions of social responsibility and reputations to protect. These white-collar users are a secretive group of addicts, and it is difficult to conduct research with them because of their fear of being discovered. The obscurity of this group explains why people first think of skid row persons or “junkies” when discussing illicit drugs such as heroin. In fact, the majority of heroin users are not on the street. Entry into treatment often follows a crisis of some type associated with the drug use. Heroin users are prone to overdose or complications from the inability to know what is in the heroin they have acquired. Withdrawal can also prompt a bout of unexplained absenteeism.

Q. My employee is in treatment following a positive drug test. Should I ask the employee how the treatment is going? It is no secret, as everybody knows about the situation. My obvious interest might help keep the employee motivated.

A. Your employee’s participation in and cooperation with a treatment program following a positive drug test is something that will be verified and communicated to you. If “asking how things are going” means eliciting more in-depth information about the treatment, you should avoid doing so. The employee will discuss his or her treatment with BJC EAP, but that information will remain confidential. You may have a strong desire to know more, but unless your employee volunteers this information, do not inquire. Gaining self-awareness, feeling well and achieving new insights make recovery exciting. Your employee may share this excitement with you, but don’t push for it. Remember, an employee in recovery may appear highly motivated, but this does not equate to cooperation in treatment. To help your employee remain motivated, rely upon feedback from BJC EAP and your own monitoring of the employee’s performance during the coming year.

Q. Are there any common myths about illicit/illegal drug use that interfere with supervisor referrals to BJC EAP?

A. The most common supervisory myth about illicit drug use is the belief that an employee who abuses drugs will “look like a drug user,” will appear to be an “anti-establishment” type or will have obvious drug-affected behavior on the job. This stereotype has continued for nearly 50 years. It remains a challenge to help supervisors get past it when training them to use an EAP as a resource and tool to intervene with troubled employees. Modern-day EAPs emerged in the mid-1970s to help address these misconceptions by educating supervisors to stop looking for addicts or drug users and instead to start referring employees to the EAP based on performance or attendance-related problems. Training focuses on doing this without regard to one’s suspicion regarding drug use. The result of this major shift in addressing substance abuse problems in the workplace was an increase in referrals of alcoholics and drug-addicted employees so they could be diagnosed and helped.

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