All posts by Nicholas Barry

I am a Substance Abuse Professional assessing persons in the workplace who have asked for assistance or have failed an alcohol or drug test. I have been working with addicts and alcoholics for a very long time.

Is Addiction a Risk in the Workplace?

Book is finally out

I was talking to a human resource manager a few weeks ago about an employee who worked in his company. This employee was driving a company car and there had been numerous complaints from other employees that this man had alcohol on his breath at various times throughout the day. The HR manager said that the employee was almost ready to admit that he had a problem and that they could finally do something.

I asked, “What if the employee killed a child in a motor vehicle accident before he admitted he needed help and you had prior knowledge of a this serious safety situation?” “I see what you mean,” he said and wanted some advice from me.” I suggested that he should take the employee out of that car immediately until he could get a substance abuse professional (SAP) to assess him for addiction and to see what the SAP recommended. The SAP will either recommend treatment or education depending on the nature and seriousness of the problem. The company will then have a written treatment plan and documentation to promote further action.

The manager was concerned with human rights of the employee. I was concerned for the child or others that could be killed or maimed if nothing was done while people were waiting for this man to get help on his own. My primary concern as a Substance Abuse Professional is the safety of the public and the other employees working with an addicted employee. The employee and his or her rights are secondary to the safety of others. The idea is to address the safety concerns first.

What constitutes reasonable cause to ask an employee to undertake a SAP assessment for addiction. What sort of things should a manager look for while observing or hearing about this employee?

· Alcohol on the breath. (That one is pretty obvious and serious)
· Drunk driving or other charges related to alcohol or drugs.
· There are physiological and physical symptoms one can learn and be attentive to.
· Erratic work performance, especially, from someone who was very good at their job. (Look for changes)
· Absenteeism is especially useful clue that the person has a problem with something.
· Rumours are useful. They can help you to establish a pattern if there are enough of them.
· Unreasonable excuses for being away or not completing tasks on time.
· Moodiness and problems with other employees.
(I have a checklist on my site called Checklist for Managers that lists many subtle clues)

How do you know if it is addiction?  Actually, you really do not know if it is an addiction. You would not know that until the person is professionally assessed. You may suspect but unless you have some sort of specialized knowledge and training you would not be able to diagnose this your self. Besides, you do not want or need all of that personal information that an addiction assessment gains, nor would the employee want to give it to you. That personal information needed for the assessment must stay with a third party for confidentiality reasons. That is another reason to us a SAP.

If you think that something is not right, there is a policy violation or that a person has an alcohol or drug problem, you should be documenting the behaviour. You are trying to build a case that something is wrong and it would be reasonable to assume that it may be addiction. To correct policy violations or improve employee behaviour is one of your functions. That is your job. That is solution-focussed intervention. Whether it is addiction or not you will have to deal with it and take steps to correct it. The SAP interview will move you to a solution. Either the person accepts the help or they do not. Are you going to let someone work with the smell of alcohol or break other company rules without taking action? It is not inhumane to ask people to be responsible for their behaviour, especially, when that behaviour has the potential to harm the employee or others.

In my seminars I hear of some really horrific cases that employees and mangers appear to be putting up with that in my opinion could be solved with some action. My on-site seminar includes a slide that says,” Addicted people do not get help because they see the light but because they feel the heat on their ___. “ In the 32 years that I have been in the addiction business, I have found that to be true especially when the workplace is actively trying to help. Everyone that I have ever personally known or heard about who has recovered from addiction, has done so only when the chips were down never when they were on a roll. Something happened in their life to make them see that there is a problem.

The workplace is uniquely able to influence the employee in such a way as to get them to look at himself or herself long enough to see that there is a problem. The choice is then theirs to do something about it.

 

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Everyone Must Do Their Share

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We can’t rely on one person to carry the weight and responsibility of making the workplace safe. It won’t work. If supervisors do not understand the policy and the need for safety they could easily let someone go on who has the smell of alcohol on them for example. They could believe a dumb excuse that it is aftershave or that it was only two beer the night before. They could refuse to alcohol test this person thinking that it will get better down the road. They could neglect to carry out the un-announced alcohol tests that have been recommended by the SAP.

Getting used to enabling is easy. People like you because you don’t challenge them. They like you because you are a people pleaser. They don’t respect you because they think that you are not worthy of respect because you are not doing your job. They think you are easily manipulated. Go on about your day and ignore the warning signs of addiction problems and pray to God this person does not cause an accident before you retire. I have known people like this. They are not serving anyone but themselves.

Unfortunately “it all comes out in the wash” as my father used to say down the road. Someone is going to be accountable for incompetence and poor supervision if there is an accident and then it becomes not pretty. So much easier just to do your job and let the chips fall as they may and you may be helping someone. One thing you will be keeping your workplace safe and following due diligence procedures.

 

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Why Would You Want Your Employee to Have a Substance Abuse Assessment?

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Whay bother with an assessment? Can’t you just ask the employee what they want?

No! You are looking to have some simple questions answered that you probably can’t answer yourself. If these simple questions are not answered then over the long term the employee could get worse, allot worse. That is bad for safety and also for the person. If things go really bad they could be very bad for you. Accident maybe?

You want to know how bad the problem is? That is important because that has to be identified to make a treatment plan.

What is the appropriate treatment? Many bosses think that a 28 day rehab will solve all the employee’s problems but how do you know and is that reasonable?  What if it is not?  A friend of mine who used to work in a mental hospital said “I had a whole wing of rehab grads.”

Is the person following the treatment plan? This is important because if they are that points to someone who will be safe in the workplace, if they are not then that would be a negative for sure.

Are they stable enough to return to work with a plan that they are following? Does alcohol or drug testing need to be invoked for safety and deterrence?

Yes, these questions will be answered with an assessment, safety will be addressed and hopefully an employee will be restored.

 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath at every moment.”

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I got a call from a union representative to call a guy. He never got back to me with the name but the next day a man called me 5 times and left two messages within 45 minutes and the messages said he failed a drug test and to call him right away. It sounded urgent and five calls in a short period seemed excessive. I called within 60 minutes of the last message he left but he there was no answer so I left a message. I imagine that it was the guy referred to by the union man. I found that strange to call so many times in a short period of time, leave two messages and not be there when I call.  Maybe there was an emergency……….?

When the union man called me he asked me if I could help the union member. I said that I could but I would need cooperation.  It is not a one sided thing. I can’t make someone change unless they want to change.

What I mean by this small story that seems to happen allot in one way or another is that every action shows something as Emerson expounds upon in his essay.  Tell me one thing and do another. Don’t show up or be late. It all says something.  I would suggest everone Read Emerson.

 

 

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Return to Work, or Not….

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If a person attends counselling rehab or self-help, the ultimate goal is the same, to get sober, stay sober and become a useful, safe employee that is not a risk due to substances. Just as addiction has recurring patterns or themes, recovery has patterns and themes that indicate whether the person is going in the right direction or not.

Some employees try to go around the return-to-work procedure and contact the HR department or management to tell them that they are now fine and wish to return to work. There is no proof they have attended any treatment, no re-assessment, no due diligence and no follow-up recommendation. The employee just “feels” they are ready. Unfortunately it is commonplace for doctors or employers to take the person at their word. We allow them to tell us what they need to get better, when obviously they have not been able to fix themselves up to this point. This is especially amplified when people surrounding an addict have bent over backwards to give assistance and have believed that the addict will change just because they said they would.

If an addict’s old behaviour — whining, complaining, displaying anger, bullying — has worked for them in the past, they may try to use that behaviour to expedite their return to work. Those that have been enabled in their addiction wonder why it should be any different now. I have seen situations where the employee starts complaining to anyone who will listen and manages to get supervisors or union representatives worked up to the point where they try to speed up the employee’s return to the workplace.

Ultimately, my goal in a return-to-work interview is to determine whether the employee has changed to such an extent that is it reasonable to believe they will not pose a hazard in the workplace due to substances. Some people are able to demonstrate this very well, others not so much. What the employer or workplace needs is documentation from the SAP so they can satisfy due diligence and proceed on the most reasonable course.

 

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Addiction Assessment for the Workplace and Return to Work Process

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When an employee first learns that the assessment has determined they have a substance problem and they need help, the question I love to hear is, “What do I have to do to get better?” But the question I get often is, “When I am going back to work?” The answer to the second question is in the first question. Appropriate action from the employee will make a good case for returning to work. Remember that these employees are off work for a reason – safety!

During a follow-up interview after treatment, I ask, “What are you doing today that makes it reasonable for me to assume that you are not going back to your drug of choice?” I look for two key indicators that an employee is working on themselves: action and attitude. First, they need to be doing something to help themselves. When they are, they also feel better. When employees are grateful for the chance to change, I believe they are on the right track. Gratitude and action together shows me that they are moving ahead. This does not happen overnight, so the employer has to have strong boundaries, only returning employees to safety-sensitive work once certain actions are fulfilled.

People are people, and what they say they are going to do, they don’t always do. Some people are moved to change when the pressure is on, but after that their effort dwindles. The return-to-work process cannot be dogmatic or inflexible; it must be reasonable. Sometimes we just have to give some solid direction and wait to see what happens.

While looking for characteristics in the employee and their behaviour that indicate a good change is taking place. I ask myself, “Does this person have a reasonable chance of not allowing alcohol or drugs to affect their job when they return to work?” The key word is reasonable. The process must be fluid while taking into account what the employee does. Are they moving away from drug usage or back to it?

If a person attends counselling rehab or self-help, the ultimate goal is the same, to get sober, stay sober and become a useful, safe employee that is not a risk due to substances. Just as addiction has recurring patterns or themes, recovery has patterns and themes that indicate whether the person is going in the right direction or not.

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Alcoholics Drink Because they Believe Alcohol is the Solution

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Alcoholism shows itself in different ways and there are many different drinking patterns but there are constants as well. This is from 30 years of reading, working and observation in the field.

  1. Their body is not normal. When they drink it sets up a craving for more. They then drink too much and then suffer symptoms and consequences. So you say the cure is easy and that is true. Don’t drink. Many alcoholics have gone a long time without a drink but the other problem is that………..
  2. Their mind is not normal. Unfortunately, the alcoholic when getting the idea to drink somehow forgets how bad the situation was before. They may have ended up in the detox centre or been caught for drunk driving but they forget this just before they have that first drink. It only takes a minute of thinking like this to pick up a drink and start the ball rolling again. One is too many and a thousand is not enough. They have memory lapses of what the last time they drank did to them and they start them on the cycle again.
  3. The illness is progressive. Sometimes the alcoholic will go for a period and look like they are drinking socially. That is their dream but they can’t keep this up. The alcoholic mind will present to the alcoholic the idea that this time it will be different and that they can now drink like normal people despite anything that may have happened previously in the past. They will keep getting the idea to drink and usually at very inopportune times. The cycle starts again and it gets worse over time.

Alcoholics have a hard time adjusting to life the way that it is. Their belief system tells them that it should be easier that what it is or that they have been given bad breaks. They are not all grown up as they appear. Something is missing. To them life is their problem. Life is at times hard and hurtful and they have found that alcohol is their solution. They can be anxious, depressed, angry, self-absorbed and discontented and the one thing that they have learned in the past very well is that alcohol fixes these things very quickly. So you see alcohol is a solution to their problem.

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Returning a worker to Work after Alcohol or Drug Infraction

20170710_114319One day in a shopping mall I overheard a conversation between two young ladies. One was telling the other that she had just failed her driving test because she did not completely stop at a stop sign. Apparently, the examiner immediately cancelled the rest of the test and told her she had failed because of that one action. She told her friend how shocked and hurt she was as she felt she performed pretty well during the other parts of the driving test. She was furious at the examiner for not passing her. She claimed it was all his fault that she didn’t pass.

I thought about how this story relates to my role in the whole return-to-duty process. The driving examiner was preventing unsafe drivers from getting their license. The young woman thought that since she only went through one stop sign and didn’t hurt anyone, she should be forgiven. She reasoned that lots of people go through stop signs without harm. The difference was she was with an examiner trained to spot mistakes. If she was unable to refrain from going through a stop sign with an examiner in the car, what kind of driver would she be when she was by herself? That is basically how I look at return-to-duty as well. If an employee is not going to make the effort to help themselves while they are out of work and being monitored, why would they make any effort to stay well when they are returned to their job functions?

The answer is that they won’t.

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Barriers to Change

Barriers to Change
In our society, there two things that are big barriers for an addict wanting to make a positive change.

1. The first barrier is our refusal to believe that the problem may actually be addiction. There is a hesitancy to see addiction at the root of certain problems in society and in the workplace. We don’t connect the dots or see the pattern where it exists, and we are always ready to believe it may be something else. Addiction seems like a situation that is too complicated for people to deal with. Education is the key to breaking down this barrier. If a manager or supervisor knew what they were dealing with and the consequences of not dealing with it, they would be compelled to act. And if they understood what to do, they would feel confident about making the necessary decisions.
2. The other barrier is enabling. We as individuals do it, and we have allowed our institutions to do it as well. We prevent the addict from seeing that they actually have an addiction through various ways. We can build a treatment centre on every city block, but if the addict does not believe that there is a problem and that they need help, they won’t go to them.

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

Managers have told me that they have to wait for an addicted employee to hit bottom before anything can be done. While it is true that the addict must reach a bottom or place where they do not want to go again, it is not true that you have to wait. You can act now by making boundaries, drawing your own line in the sand, and by having a procedure or process in place to handle the outcome. Whether the addict changes or not, you must change in order to deal with the problem. You eventually find out through the process whether there is a problem and whether the employee will deal with it or not. The beauty of the process is that what you have to do to make the workplace safe is the thing that the addict may need to hit a bottom or a crisis.

Substance dependent individuals recover in different ways. Some stop immediately and never to return to usage. These are the ones that hit a firm bottom, decide they want to change and act on that desire.

On the other hand, I’ve also witnessed a common pattern: a person hits a bottom, but they forget about what caused it, no action is taken and eventually drug use returns. They will either stop before it gets too bad or be lost again. Occasionally I read about individuals I’ve dealt with through their company policy who have died violently or in some other manner related to their addiction. You might as well know what you are dealing with. It is not pretty.

Do you want to go down the tubes with the addicted employee, or give them a firm chance to get and stay clean? If an employee is having addiction affect their work, deal with it now instead of waiting until they get into serious trouble and possibly hurt others in the workplace.

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