Substance use disorder (SUD) is a growing concern among organizations as they are challenged to find ways to address the impact of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. SUD is a term used to describe a variety of addictions to substances such as alcohol, stimulants, opioids, prescription painkillers, and others.
The impacts of substance use in the workplace pose unique problems in our society, and the COVID-19 pandemic added additional trials for people who use substances . In the US, about one third of people who drink alcohol have increased their consumption since the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve also seen a 30% increase in drug use among people who use drugs (PWUD).
Unhealthy substance use can carry over to the professional realm, too, with costly consequences. In the US, employers lose over $100 billion a year due to the impacts of substance use , with an estimated 72.2% of that loss attributed to decreased productivity. Employees who are stressed, overwhelmed, and struggling may be taking significant amounts of time off, which can be quite costly.
Functional changes in the brain and body due to persistent use of any substance is the basis of addiction, which can present as a spectrum of behaviors and health problems.
But there is good news: most people with SUD do recover! “Recovery is an individualized, intentional, dynamic, and relational process involving sustained efforts to improve wellness” (Ashford, et. al 2019). According to NIDA, people who recieve the right type of treatment and have the support of people around them, are able to reach their recovery goals.
The stigma around substance use disorder keeps many people from asking for help, especially at work. Many employees might be afraid of losing their jobs or respect of their colleagues due to the way people with SUD are typically portrayed in the media. Individuals in leadership positions might be afraid of admitting they’re struggling with substances for fear of their reputation being impacted negatively. But taking time to address our physical and mental health are ways we can show leadership in any role!
People in recovery are some of the the best employees out there! At WEconnect over 50% of our staff identify as people in recovery. People in recovery save their employers in health care utilization costs, turnover and recruitment, productivity, and costs related to unscheduled leave time. By giving employees the support they need to get back to a healthy lifestyle with WEconnect Works, employers can help to create more recovery-friendly and productive workplaces.
When Risky Use Becomes a Red Flag
Sometimes people are in denial or not quite ready to change their relationship with substances. But there are some red flags that colleagues and loved ones can be aware of.
There are multiple models and schools of thought around addiction, from the disease model to the trauma-informed model; while those models each have their strong points, our goal here is not to advocate for any one. Rather, we keep them in conversation with each other as the larger discourse about substance use evolves.
The American Psychiatric Association's list of substance use disorder symptoms is grouped into categories:
- Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to cut down or control substance use.
- Social problems: substance use causes failure to complete major tasks at work, school, or home; social, work, or leisure activities are negatively impacted by substance use.
- Risky use: the substance is used in risky settings; continued use despite known problems.
A conversation around social problems, especially around negative impacts of substance use in the workplace, can be a good starting point to help a colleague or employee figure out what type of support and/or treatment they need—either for them to personally assess whether their own use has reached that point, or before their use becomes risky. It’s important for every workplace to have a system in place for employees to access resources without facing social stigma or fear of repercussion.
Employees and employers can both find benefits from a recovery-friendly workplace policy. When employers already have embedded comprehensive support options, the negative impacts of substance use in the workplace can be mitigated early.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD), stress is sometimes a precursor to the use of drugs in the workplace. "Unfortunately, as stress levels rise… often so does the [sic] use of drugs and alcohol." (Aamodt, 2012). That leads to more risky substance use, and over time the consequences can grow even more severe. That’s why it’s important to have these kinds of conversations openly and honestly, without judgment.
Comprehensive Support Options
Many companies recognize the problems of substance use and have established employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help mitigate the cost and the negative impacts. Employees who need support for substance use disorder are often referred to programs for addiction treatment that meet their unique needs. Some people may only need to attend an outpatient program, while others might require medical detox and inpatient treatment. Many programs offered by EAPs are open for self-referral for support in areas like stress, depression, anxiety, and family dynamics. Many organizations have internal programs and hire counselors affiliated with independent EAPs.
Employees who are recovering from substance use need support when they transition back into the workforce. A recovery-friendly workplace policy can make all the difference. Recovery-friendly workplaces typically go through training about the basis of addiction and how to support those who are experiencing a mental health or substance use difficulty. Having positive support from wellness administrators, human resource departments, supervisors, and colleagues can enhance an employee's recovery progress.
There are a number of effective interventions for SUD that employers can adopt through EAPs. One intervention gaining attention in addiction services is contingency management (CM). It’s among the most effective solutions across substance use disorders, and the best standalone method for supporting substance use disorder without medication.
What is contingency management? Contingency management refers to a type of behavioral intervention based on operant conditioning principles, in which individuals are “reinforced,” or rewarded, for evidence of positive behavioral change. A number of studies conducted in both methadone and psychosocial counseling treatment programs confirm that incentive-based interventions are highly effective in increasing treatment retention and promoting abstinence from drugs.
In a 2019 Medicaid Control Group study, WEconnect partnered with a Medicaid plan in Pennsylvania to implement the WEconnect platform with a select cohort of its members and saw substantial increases in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) prescription refills and primary care provider (PCP) visits (35% and 76%), as well as a nearly 15% reduction in emergency department visits in comparison with the control group. Contingency management goes a long way in encouraging those in recovery to keep pursuing their goals!
A Path to Progress
It’s important to remember that recovery is not a monolith. While 12-step programs have traditionally been the most accessible option for previous generations of folks who experience substance use disorder, this pathway is not always a supportive option for many different lifestyles and beliefs. However, WEconnect’s app works with any pathway and lifestyle. Anyone can benefit from our services; contingency management is just one optional piece of WEconnect’s comprehensive recovery support service offerings.
WEconnect’s recovery app uses HIPAA-compliant technology that can help employees with SUD stay on track. Another crucial aspect of the support WEconnect offers is true connection, the human heart of the app. Dedicated, professional Peer Recovery Support Specialists (PRSS or “Peers”) are here to support employees in achieving their recovery goals through individual support as well as our mutual aid meeting community spaces. The combination of contingency management, routine reinforcement, and peer support provided through the WEconnect app drives engagement with healthy behaviors.
Our WEconnect Works employee support offering is designed to support any wellness or lifestyle change for anyone, no matter where they fall on the addiction and behavioral health spectrum. It includes 1-on-1 Peer support in addition to routine support, but most importantly, is anonymous for employees so that their privacy is protected.
Though WEconnect is by no means a replacement for clinical therapeutic engagement, it is an evidence-based option that can support and motivate employees, leading to improved wellness and positive outcomes in the workplace. Reach out today to see if WEconnect can work for your team.
Workplace Support for Employees in Recovery From Opioid Use: Stakeholder Perspectives
How to make a recovery-friendly workplace: The Unity story
Comprehensive Workplace Policies and Practices Regarding Employee Opioid Use
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