When presented through documentaries and reality shows, addiction is often presented as life at its lowest – unemployment, disconnection from family, and eventually death. The real picture of addiction and alcoholism is far more nuanced and covers even those who are functionally employed and live a stable home life.
In fact, a large majority of those with alcohol and addiction problems are still employed. This reflects the reality of modern addiction – it is pervasive and can affect anyone at any time in their life. Though this group of the alcohol and drug addicted are employed, their problems don’t stop the moment they start work each day – and employers need to face the realities and costs behind this portion of their workforce.
Provide clear opportunities for employees to seek help
Whether through Employee Assistance Programs or clear protocols with speaking to Human Resources, at a bare minimum the struggling employee should understand safe options for help. If they perceive of their addiction problem will only lead to termination and judgment by coworkers, then they will have less incentive to solve their problem. As EAP programs can be expensive to implement, especially with smaller employers, decision-makers will need to understand the costs and benefits of how they approach helping their employees.
At a minimum, have the work environment be drug and alcohol-free
It is increasingly common for companies across most industries to use pre-employment drug screens. While it may seem that this only serves to screen out drug users, it may also serve to communicate that the company is serious about drug use and it is at the forefront of culture upon hiring.
Additionally, companies may seek to better understand their culture around alcohol – do employees drink at celebratory lunches, at Christmas parties, or frequently in after-work functions? It would make sense for companies to be better aware of how their culture may affect those who are privately or publicly struggling with a drinking problem. This understanding could lead to responsible and effective change.
Employers should view the issue through both a humane and cost-effective lens
Cost Savings – There is significant data that suggests for every 1 dollar spent on drug treatment, there is a 4 to 7 dollar return on cost savings to society. Of course, these numbers are estimates, and an employer would need to decide to what level they feel compelled to contribute – i.e. how much are they helping society and how much their own bottom line? The reality is that lowered productivity, increased turnover, and a poor workplace culture do cost companies money, and directly battling addiction provides the opportunity to reduce these costs.
Company image and identity – Another way to approach the question of how and whether to help their own employees is a bit more difficult – what kind of company do you want to be? The opioid epidemic by itself now costs the U.S. $78.5 billion per year. The addiction problem is upon all of us, and the role of employers response is largely up to them. The costs aren’t going away, though, and it will be interesting to see if employers embrace their responsibility in this regards to the same way they have embraced employer-sponsored healthcare.
As we come to realize that addiction and alcoholism spread amongst all levels of society, including the unemployed and employed, it will go beyond the government and healthcare institutions to decide how best to respond to the problem. Employers have a direct opportunity to provide some basic help to their own employees who are in need.