There are four general characteristics that I look for to determine if the employee has reached the stage of becoming an addict. These characteristics are: obsession of the mind, lack of control over usage, negative consequences and denial. To what degree addiction has become a problem is what I do my best to find out through the interview process. I look and see if this person could be a possible safety risk in the workplace due to alcohol or drugs usage. This takes knowledge, skill and practice asking questions and also in observing what happens to people in the coming months. Sometimes no one is happy with what I come up with and it is usually because some of these employees have been able to get away with drinking and drugging by people around them for many years.
In most cases people around the addict make excuses for the behavior and therefore it continues. It is as simple as that. No one likes to think of someone as an addict either to drugs or alcohol. They feel that is degrading and too simple an explanation. We all want to find reasons for the behavior other than what the real problem is.
One of the main problems I encounter in talking to managers and employees in the workplace is that generally people don’t know what an addict is. They think that it is the homeless guy living on the street or the prostitutes up the road that are working to support an opiate addiction. Yes, they are addicts but these people have lost control to such an extent everyone can see there is a problem.
Because of the shame attached to having an addiction people cover it up. The shame causes the addict to hide and deny their actions. The shame causes others around the addict to hide the behavior as well. Most of the addiction in society remains below the public radar so that when we think of addiction only the most serious of cases come to mind. As a result of being poorly educated in addiction we as a society get the idea that unless it is bad and very visible it is not addiction. This is inaccurate. Once the pattern of addictive behavior is established it takes a while for that behavior to be noticed by society and people close to them. This is especially true if the addict is being enabled by someone to keep going along their bad road.
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Sometimes I have managers asking me questions about how to help one of their employees. I usually ask them some questions too to find out what the problem is. It is amazing that the same patterns are repeated over and over again in many workplaces trying to deal with an addicted employee. The pattern is…… employee gets in trouble, he or she gets a talking to, they promise to be good now, everyone forgets and then they get in trouble again. The problem is that no serious action is taken and no long term accountability results. They don’t realize that without boundaries that this problem will reoccur. The workplace needs a procedure that they can use to find a solution to the problem that is ethical and will help but primarily this is a safety issue. If substance abuse is looked at from the safety aspect that can affect others then that is where to start. That can be the focus of your plan.
One question I ask a manager or human resource professional looking for my advice on a problem employee is “How long are you prepared to allow this situation go on?” I gauge their seriousness and their intention from that question. I suggest that they do have control over situations that are causing them grief and with some understanding and a procedure things will change.
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When it is determined that someone does have a problem and they need help then question I love to hear is “what do I have to do to get better?” The question I get most often is “when I am going back to work?” The answer to the second question is in the first question. When the employee does what is necessary for recovery then the risk is minimized. With good action and some alcohol or drug testing the process is set up for the employee to return to work.
Company boundaries dictate to the employee that they are required to change prior to returning to work can be hard for the employee to accept. The employee may balk at this suggestion. This is why everyone involved must be educated and understand that the process of being out of work to get recovery is for the individual’s own good as well as the safety and due diligence of the company.
I have seen situations where the employee starts complaining to anyone who will listen and manages to get supervisors or union representatives worked up trying to speed things up. You may be dealing with someone that is used to getting what they want by whining and complaining. They reason that people whine and complain is that it has worked in the past.
The two greatest positive signs that I can see in an employee who is working on themselves is action and attitude. They are doing something to help themselves and they also are feeling better about the changes. When employees are grateful for the chance to change I believe that 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 about returning to work until certain actions are fulfilled.
A lifetime of thinking one way does not change in a short time but sometimes personal transformations are amazing. I knew a man personally who 31 years ago turned from one of the most cranky resentful, hateful people into one of the most spiritual and happy people I know now. He drank daily for 20 years prior to his change. He now works hard to help others even at 84 years old. Change like this happens but usually not that quickly or dramatically.
On the other hand, it seems like some employees act like they are waiting for some outside force to change them without any effort on their part. Their inaction shows me that they are not motivated to change and don’t really want to put any effort into the process. I have to conclude that it has not become bad enough for them to want to stop. They don’t understand that they need help. Needing and wanting are two different things.
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. What is said today is not necessarily done tomorrow and people change their mind. I have found that the process in assessing people returning to work cannot be a dogmatic and inflexible procedure based on power. That is not helpful to anyone. Many situations can develop when a person is asked to take the initiative to get help and sometimes we just have to give some solid direction and wait to see what happens. I have had some interesting cases over the years for sure.
What I look for are characteristics and behavior in the employee that shows or starts to show that good change is taking place. My question that I ask myself is this: “Does this person have a reasonable chance of not using drugs or alcohol when they return to work?” The idea here 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?
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