Category Archives: Treatment

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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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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Success With Addiction in The Workplace

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What Constitutes Success?

The benchmarks of a successful alcohol and drug program should be based on safety, not whether the individual causing the problem changes or not. If it is run correctly, no one gets hurt and the person with problems has the opportunity to get help. That is success right there! If the person takes the help and changes that is a terrific bonus but that is not the ultimate goal.

What do you do with someone who does not want to stop drinking or drugging? You will realize with some education that there is nothing you can do to force them to stop. Gentle pressure can be put on people but the main pressure has to come from the person themselves. They have to get to a place where they know deep down that they are the ones that have to change. They begin to understand that they are responsible for their own problems. They see that no one is coming to save them because they have to save themselves.

Firing the person and then rehiring them without some type of verifiable change is not the answer. That happens and it just teaches an addict that they can get their job back without changing so the next time they drink or use they believe there are no consequences. True and long lasting change must come from within. If the desire for change is not there then that is your answer and you may as well know this sooner than later, they are not ready for change at this time.

People with alcohol and drug problems fail to stop drinking or drugging until they come to the realization that their usage will cause them problems. That is just the way it is. For an addict to recover many factors have to come into play and sometimes it is just is not the right time for them to see their part. They are not ready to stop yet and they may never stop. Do you do wait forever until they decide to stop and allow them to become a safety risk and liability for your company?  The whole is more important than the parts. There is a balance between safety and human rights.

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Addiction and Safety


When I was first asked to participate in this SAP process in 1994 I was asked to do allot of reading to understand the new way of addressing addiction in the workplace.  I became very excited at the potential after starting to understand that this simple process had the power to change people’s lives. It was different from any type of counselling or treatment that I had been involved in before.

I was amazed what changes took place! Very rarely did the employee refuse to meet. They all wanted their jobs. The procedure helped them see reality so that they could decide if they wanted to change. That is the pre-step in recovery circles, the gradual opening of the mind to the realization of what they are doing is not working, especially in the workplace. Their career was where their problem was being noticed. The employer was setting boundaries that the employee could understand. To me this was a huge advancement in safety and in the way we treat substance abuse which affects the workplace.

An exchange of information with other professionals was needed on certain employees that I had assessed. I experienced many problems in trying to get others to understand either by their ignorance on addiction or their personal stubbornness and desire to leave things as they were. Difficulties appeared because the professionals did not understand and were trying to protect their client or in some cases they were purposely being resistant. They were looking at it from their client’s rights and not the rights of the company or other workers around the employee. It appeared that taking responsibility for safety in the workplace was a totally new way of taking action on addition issues. Unfortunately, these counsellors got an awakening when the company kept the employee out of work until a successful outcome was attained. Then the employee became cooperative. Action is hard in the beginning but with momentum it is easier. Once employees got moving on recovery activities they were on board with it too.

This idea of looking at addiction as a safety issue did make people think past what the addict wanted. They could eventually see what the company’s point- the possible effects on those around the problem employee and the potential for tragedy. Once other professionals understood that the process revolved around safety and also was a completely ethical way of doing things, doctors and treatment providers went along with it for the most part. I still face some opposition from some in the field who feel that the most important thing is to act as an advocate for their clients. Safety comes first, however, not what the employee wants or had been used to. It also helped some addicts come down a notch and see their rightful place in a company being one of the many only. They could not talk themselves back to work anymore with lame excuses. They needed the assessment and the issue came out there. In working with anyone addicted to alcohol or drugs accountability is important for personal change.

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What is Treatment for Addiction?


What is treatment? Knowing an effective procedure to deal with substance abuse affecting the workplace is enough to know for a manager without having to understand the various types of treatment. It is helpful for managers and supervisors to be aware of the general categories of treatment but to find out and understand all of the treatment options is too much to ask and it is not necessary. What is necessary is that the worker gets appropriate help if needed.  This is the reason for the professional assessment procedure.

Some companies have sent their employees away for example on expensive 28 day programs but the employee continues to get into trouble. The manager may tell me that “they have already have had treatment.” Who recommended it, how did they know it was the right choice, was there follow up, did the employee accept the continuing recommendations from the treatment? These are some questions that could be asked about an employee who went for treatment. So there is more to treatment than being locked up for a month. That type of treatment is just a small part. What is important is what the employee does with the treatment afterwards. For that monitoring is required.

There are several categories of addiction treatment to be aware of if you are dealing with an employee that needs help. In-patient, out-patient, detoxification, aftercare and groups are the general categories.

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