Weeding out addiction in the workplace

Addiction treatment expert Cathy Barrick discusses the financial and safety consequences of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace, at this year's HRPA conference. She offers some advice on how to effectively manage addiction in the workplace.

It's no secret that addiction can have a dramatic effect on health and safety in the workplace. At this year's annual Human Resources Professionals Association's (HRPA) Conference and Tradeshow in Toronto, presenter Cathy Barrick spoke about how health and safety managers can help their workers mediate the challenges posed by addiction and minimize the risk of accident or injury.

As the director of operations at Renascent, an addiction treatment centre in Toronto, and someone with more than 18 years in the field of mental health and addiction, both as a front-line counsellor and manager, Barrick knows how important it is for health and safety managers and human resources personnel to make spotting and treating potential problems a priority.

In the first place, it can be costly when you don't. Barrick pointed to a study conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2002 that estimated the annual cost of lost productivity due to addiction issues to be $24.3 billion. That amount doesn't include the cost of addictions-related workplace accidents and injuries.

Beyond the financial consequence of addictions-related illness, though, there is one other big reason why health and safety professionals need to be on the lookout for potential warning signs: to protect their workers from befalling unnecessary injury or harm.

Using what she described as "the weekend warrior" as an example of how addiction can affect health and safety in the workplace, Barrick noted that a person doesn't necessarily have to be under the influence of drugs while at work for his or her addictions to create problems. The weekend warrior is someone who imbibes heavily on weekends or evenings but isn't necessarily abusing substances during work hours.

The problem with this pattern is that, whether it's alcohol or marijuana or prescription medication or another drug, regular habit increases tolerance, which causes individuals to ingest more of the substance to obtain the desired effect. Thus, when individuals stop taking the substance, it causes adverse physiological reactions, such as hangovers and symptoms of withdrawal. These adverse effects can impair cognitive and motor functions, among other things, and as a result, have the ability to severely compromise affected employees' work performance.

"The truth with weekend warriors is that it can be an indication of a problem," says Barrick. "Even if it's not, if people have a high level of use on the weekend — whether it be alcohol or drugs — when they show up at work on Monday morning they could very easily be in withdrawal. Depending on the substance, withdrawal can have very different effects, and can certainly affect people's ability to function, and their safety on the job. Some substances last longer in the system, as well, such as THC or marijuana: It comes out more gradually, but can impair people's performance for the whole time it's in the system, to varying degrees."

Because of the potential danger they pose to both themselves and their co-workers in their compromised state, Barrick feels that health and safety professionals need to be proactive in spotting early warning signs that might indicate this pattern of behaviour. There are many common symptoms associated with substance abuse and withdrawal, including irritability, watery or bloodshot eyes, increased and unexplained absenteeism, impaired coordination and an inability to properly complete tasks.

"I would say the symptoms you should watch for are the shakes," says Barrick, "or basically flu-like symptoms that can't be explained by the flu."

As Barrack notes, however, many symptoms associated with substance abuse or withdrawal could also be an indicator of something more mundane, such as illness or fatigue. With this in mind, it's important to be tactful as you try to address the issue with the employee in question. At the same time, Barrick feels it's equally important to be direct.
"The best approach if you notice something," she says, "is to have a direct conversation with the person and ask: 'Is there something up? You don't seem like yourself. You don't look well.' Really, for the health and safety professional in the workplace or human resources, it's not really your job to figure out if they have a problem: it's your job to figure out if you need to find out. Whether it's a pattern or a one-off instance, if it's a significant situation that has your warning valve going off, then that's when you would want to intervene and send them somewhere."

If you feel like you would like an employee to be evaluated, Barrick notes that you can also have them undergo a more holistic evaluation process in the interest of not making them uncomfortable.

Ensuring safe return to work is another critical aspect of dealing with addictions-related illnesses in the workplace. Although work returns are typically handled by human resources, it is important for health and safety managers to work with the human resources department to establish protocols that ensure the employee's return to work is not at the expense of safety.

Barrick notes that addiction-related illnesses and treatment plans do not typically require long leaves or employee absence.

"Our approach to return to work is that the person should get back right away," she says. "Addiction and addiction recovery are not reasons to be absent from work. The quicker you can return to work, the better. Sometimes, depending on the job, there may be some sort of accommodation needed to help get to aftercare, and things like that, but generally, it's usually a straight return to work with no significant accommodation immediately."

As much as it's important for workers recovering from substance abuse issues to return to work and find structure within their new lifestyle, it's equally important to establish the conditions under which they return. Barrick advocates for what she calls "last chance agreements" as a means of ensuring compliance and fostering workplace safety. Under these agreements, the returning employee agrees to abide by a set of rules, which, if not followed, could result in more serious consequences, including their termination from the company.

"Last-chance agreements are a very good treatment tool," says Barrick. "They help people remain accountable. They're definitely extremely helpful in the workplace: they make the expectations clear in terms of what [the worker] is required to do and in terms of their disability and how they're going to manage it."

Stipulations can include requiring employees to maintain certain attendance or punctuality standards, attending a pre-determined number of therapy or support sessions, or submitting to random drug testing a specified number of times each year. Typically, these agreements are in effect for a pre-established period of time — Barrick suggests two years— and once completed successfully, can remain on file for reference in case of future incidents.