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Webinar Reflections: The Addiction Epidemic and Its Impact on Employers

There is no disputing that America has a serious addiction issue on its hands. We can even go as far as to call it an epidemic, and a public health problem. Employers are well aware of the issue. They conduct background checks, provide training for managers on how to look for warning signs, and they are quick to remove individuals that struggle with addiction from the workplace. But is this an approach that is actually solving the problem?

In a recent WELCOA Pulse Episode, Kelly Firesheets, Addiction Response Expert, and VP of Business Development for Cordata Community Services provided a different perspective on how the addiction epidemic impacts employers and what they can do to be part of the solution. Here’s a recap of what she taught us:

Why Do We Talk About Addiction as an Epidemic?

“The short answer is that it’s an emergent, life-threatening problem,” Kelly shared. According to the CDC, in 2021, 100,000 people died due to an overdose. Today, excessive alcohol use is a leading preventable cause of death in the US with alcohol-related ER visits on the rise. It’s never been easier to hide addiction, as much of the country and the world are still working in isolated environments. According to the National Institute on Drug Use, “Addiction is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”

Addiction is a Spectrum

Kelly explained that, “our perspective on addiction has dramatically changed in the last decade, largely due to the opioid epidemic.” We began to recognize it as a public health problem and not a crime problem because it is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, we have people taking prescription medications, exactly as they are prescribed, and yet find themselves addicted and dependent. We also have professionals, with children, over-consuming alcohol which is perfectly legal to purchase and consume. On another end of the spectrum, we have people illegally purchasing drugs and getting addicted. And we also have the issue of marijuana. It’s legal in some communities and even prescribed by doctors, and yet in other communities, you can be incarcerated for using it. People can find themselves struggling with all kinds of addiction for all kinds of reasons. It is a spectrum. In fact, you likely know or even work with someone struggling with an addiction and don’t even know.

Addiction is NOT a Moral Issue

The AMA classifies addiction as a medical problem that needs treatment. There are very clear criteria for diagnosing someone with an addiction. In the science and medical community, addiction is recognized as a disease, but oftentimes, outside of that community, it is recognized as a moral issue. We often want this to be black and white. You’re either good and following the rules or you’re bad and not following the rules. But this mentality is the epitome of stigma. Addiction is not a moral issue, it’s a biopsychosocial issue.

Addiction IS a Biopsychosocial Issue

Kelly helped us understand that “the truth is that addiction is a biopsychosocial issue meaning there are biological elements involved like chemical dependence, there are psychological elements involved like the way we cope and think, and there are social elements like the influence of the people we spend time with.” When you look at addiction from this perspective, this is when we can begin to realize that the issue isn’t black and white. Just like many other diseases, a multitude of factors can come into play and that’s no different when it comes to addiction.

Sympathy is a Spectrum

In addition to addiction being a spectrum, our sympathy is also a spectrum. On one hand, it’s very easy for us to feel sympathy for people that had something bad happen to them outside of their control, like a cancer diagnosis. On the other hand, it can be harder to have sympathy for someone who has had something happen to them as a consequence of their actions like a lifetime smoker getting a lung cancer diagnosis.

The problem here is that when it comes to addiction, we often view it as a consequence of someone’s actions. We like to think that if people just make the right choices that they’ll be healthy, but it’s not that simple.

Crush the Stigma

Fact: Employers can be part of the problem.
Fact: Employers can be part of the solution.

In Kelly’s opinion, “the greatest risk employers can take is not showing sympathy to addiction.” This can perpetuate the stigma that everyone who struggles with addiction is a bad person. The greater the stigma, the less likely people will be to seek help. Stigma is a barrier to being healthy and taking control of things in the ways that you can.

How Employers Can Help

  1. Focus on Harm Reduction Rather than Abstinence
    Harm reduction involves using practical strategies aimed at reducing the negative impact of substance use. For example, if alcohol is served at a professional event, offer drink tickets to encourage safe alcohol use, and provide safe transportation from the event. It can also look like creating drug testing policies to ensure that people taking opioids aren’t stuck in a punitive system by doing something healthy for them. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing in managing people. Take a perspective of “what can I do to make this not damaging and move this person toward health today?”
  2. Support the Treatment and Recovery Process
    Create an environment that encourages employees in active addiction or in recovery to get the help they need through supportive policies and supportive management. Put resources in place to help employees get back to the performance you need, or to go get help. Think critically about this. Consider the barriers that may exist in the workplace that are preventing employees from getting help. It’s the little barriers in life that make it hard to commit to treatment. You can also include peer support for employees post-treatment. Employees can even get professional certifications to help their peers pursue recovery.
  3. Look at Your Policies
    Kelly asked us to consider, “how can employers help someone struggling with addiction if addiction cannot be allowed in the workplace?” Look at your policies and see if there is room for you to move toward harm reduction and a more supportive environment. You should also take a hard look at drug testing and criminal background checks. Ask yourself if and how you can be more open to people who might have a history of addiction.
The addiction epidemic is a public health issue that can and should be addressed in the workplace. Employers have a lot more power in how these public health issues get addressed than they might think.

For more information and resources regarding addiction in the workplace, check out this resource guide.