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.
When dealing with an addict it is important to remember one thing. This also applies to people as well. Here it is “you cannot change another person.”
Sounds pretty simple but to learn this but how many times in our daily lives are the things we do designed to change others. Saying something to a family member because you don’t like the way they are. Trying to bend over backwards for someone to get them to not do something. Pretend that you know what they are thinking or can read their mind in order to be ready to counteract what you think they may do or not do. There are tons of ways we try to change others maybe not even realizing it. Here is an example. I have been married a long time to a woman who when she walks she likes to walk fast. She has a goal and she wants to get there and thinks by walking fast it is healthier. Maybe it is. I don’t know but I like to walk slow and ambling. I like to make it a social time or talk, an experience, a learning or whatever but not a fast walk trying to catch my breath. No matter what I have done over the years makes her walk slowly.
So two different people, to walking styles. I continually ask to slow down and sometimes I drag my own ass just to try to slow it but never have I been able to change her. She walks fast, that is the way she is always was and always will be.
So what to do? I can change myself and walk faster. I can choose not to walk. I can just accept that this is the way she is. I can walk part way and go home. I can go biking instead or on another walk with the dog at my pace. There are lots of things I can do.
I watch Gerry Springer from time to time and I am amazed how when men with a cheating history are caught again the significant other says they will give him one more change because she loves him. Then they bring out the other woman and there is a big fight. The reason I am interested is that I have seen this in real life. I see that people can have a life but stick with the loser for some reason thinking they can change them. It is amazing but we all do the same thing in less dramatic ways.
As with an addict they are going to do what they are going to do. Only thing you can do is to set your own boundaries and decide what you will tolerate. This includes workplace policies. Create your own goals, your own hobbies and your own life, follow them and you will be a happier person. Trying to change others does not work. I have tried and tried myself to change addicts. Ha! What a waste of time and whatever will be will be. Get a life of your own maybe the addict will be so shocked they will decide to change themselves.
I worked in a detox centre during the 80s and it was pretty good because I could observe why people change up close. Many came and many went though that detox centre over that year and a half. It was a bit of an education for me. Many just kept coming back and never seemed to get it.
As I live in a small city I used to run into people that had been in detox that had changed their life around. What was common to these people was that they made themselves accountable for their illness and started doing something differently as soon as they got out. These were the ones that made sobriety a long-term commitment. They owned the problem. Their action showed that they made being sober a priority. It was that simple. They found a way to stay clean and worked at it. They did not let other things get in the way of their number one goal. They found some type of behavior and action that they were able to incorporate into their life that helped them stay away from their drug. They changed their friends or living accommodations and developed new habits. They developed this one goal that was important and the rest of the things that came to them was built on that success. The patients that did not return to detox are the ones that I felt that held one part to the secret to sobriety. I witness the other part of it.
So, after a little while I saw what separated the repeaters from the patients that did not come back. I witnessed that it was the action on the part of the addict that had a big part to play in sobriety. Action became the magic word when trying to determine who was going to succeed and who was not but what predicated the action?
What was it that made certain addicts turn inward instead of outward and admit they were the problem which was the first step to getting well? I realized that when others finally stopped enabling the addict then a chance to get better was presented. If their spouse for example walked out it caused some addicts to decide to change. If they were fired from a job that also seemed to create change with some. These occurrences appeared to be great motivators. They were bad events in themselves but they had the effect of getting the addict to look at themselves for the cause of their problems. I saw this pattern with the ones that did “make it.” Something significant happened which led to change. It had something to do with enabling I reasoned because when the enabling stopped so did the addiction! Somebody important stopped covering up the problem. That was the common tie with addicts that finally got it. This was the crux of the situation. I believed that I had found some type of answer to the question of why do some get it? There was more to learn………………….
I have heard it said that justification, minimization and rationalization are tools that addicts and alcoholics use to keep themselves convinced that they can still use and not get in trouble. This is so true. During interviews I regularly hear these tools being used.
When addicts are ready to admit the truth those tools are not there. They own the problem and want to do everything that they can to be honest to get the help. Those negative tools are not heard in the speech of someone who honestly believes that they have a problem and wants to get well.
Justification example: “There are lots of other people in this organization that smoke dope too, not just me!”
Rationalization example: “I work hard, make good money why shouldn’t I be able to relax once in a while. What I do on my own time is my own business.”
Minimization Example: I know that they say I failed a breath test but that was because I was up late and had no breakfast. I need it to sleep once in a while so what the heck. My reading was not high enough to fail a test for drunk driving. I could have driven my car and passed any test the police have!”
These are all signs of someone who does not want to stop but being caught is just an inconvenience for them that must be overcome. A competent counselor can work with people that really want to stop and also help people see how bad the problem is but there are some addicts that will never stop no matter what is put before them.
This is a beautiful picture of how to get and stay sober. You have to learn from others what to do in order to have a good garden. Follow the one in front that knows the way to do it. There is nothing in the beginning and what is there has to be tilled up. You have never grown a garden before and it is hard to start as there is no momentum. Progress is so slow that sometimes you have to look at your neighbour’s farm to see what yours could look like if you put the work in. That gives encouragement and faith to keep going. The weather is not always fair either and it changes quite a bit. Some days you will be cold and wet and and you wonder how anything will ever grow. Everything is flat and nothing is pretty. You need help to plow through and if you have to keep going a day at a time because there is not going to be any produce to eat if you stop. Every step is built on the former and it is in order. You must till up then plant the seeds and nourish the seeds or you have nothing lasting.
If you don’t look after sobriety then the pests will come and destroy what you are building. You can decide to fall in love or find some other diversion but your garden will go to the dogs. It is constant work and sometimes you will want to quit because it is too hard and it looks like there is nothing growing at all or you can’t imagine waiting long enough for the little sprouts to turn into anything. You want everything to be grown today so you can eat the vegetables but reality is that sobriety does not work that way for anyone.
Even when the harvest comes and the produce is consumed there is always more work to do. You must repair the machinery and get supplies for the next season. Things break down and must be built up. You have to get prepared in case something goes wrong and even then a bad storm could come and do allot of damage but because of the former work you will make it through. Sobriety is like that. If it was easy then everyone would be sober.
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.
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.
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.
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?
So many people that I talk to have told me that they wished that they did not start down that road with an addict. Now they feel it is too late. One friend of mine buys cigarettes, alcohol and grass for his own 20 something son. He also pays his rent, high cell phone charges and hires lawyers to keep him out of jail. He also takes physical and mental abuse from this son he thinks he is helping. He is most times on edge wondering what the next crises will be. I foresee a very bad ending either for the son or my friend. Obscene and crazy you say? Ask yourself if you are doing anything to keep the addict from seeing their problems and try to see how it ended up this way. You see that you willingly let yourself be pulled along a path of bad help. Get some good information and learn how to get out of this trap before it hauls you in and sucks the life out of you like it is doing to my friend.
So, the term co-dependent is apt and accurate. It takes two (there may be many more) to form this sick relationship and it just gets worse and worse. When I question and expose it as bad help sometimes a bull’s eye on my head because I am upsetting strong systems and former beliefs by getting enablers to look at themselves. They don’t ever want to look at themselves because the sick addict has been the patient not them. “Don’t look at me! I am the good one here! I am the victim, leave me alone!” Normal for a codependent, but yes, wrong if you want the addict to recover. The bad help has to go. They cannot bear that thought that they are perhaps part of the problem. Silly me for suggesting this.
Bosses, supervisors, society, parents, doctors, counsellors, spouses and children can all be sucked into this trap and I find my self fighting with this invisible monster which is helping to keep addicts the way they are. It is awful when it is seen for what it is and it is hard to rally against it without someone getting their feathers severely ruffled.