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Addressing Substance Use in the Working Population

In the United States, an estimated 11 million people struggle with substance use disorder (SUD). More commonly referred to as addiction, SUD is a complex medical condition where a person is unable to control their use of a substance even when it is negatively impacting their life.

These substances include alcohol, illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, and prescription medications such as pain relievers, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills.

Addiction is a Chronic Disease

Addiction is largely misunderstood. Many believe it is a moral choice or a question of willpower: If someone really wants to stop, they will. However, that’s like asking a person with diabetes or asthma to simply get well.

Addiction is a chronic disease — just like diabetes or asthma. Diabetes means the pancreas is sick and injured, while asthma means the lungs are sick and injured. 

With addiction, the brain is sick and injured. It has been rewired and become used to regularly getting drugs or alcohol, leading to a vicious cycle of intoxication, withdrawal and craving. That’s why people with an addiction will continue to drink or take drugs no matter how bad the consequences.

Addiction shares many attributes with other chronic diseases. For example:

  • It runs in families. An estimated 40-60% of addiction is attributable to genetic factors.
  • It is often associated with intergenerational poverty.
  • It is frequently worsened by stress.
  • It is common. Six in 10 adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic disease.

Addiction Overwhelmingly Impacts Working People

Last year alone, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose. The vast majority of deaths were among people aged 26-64. Excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., with most deaths occurring in those 20-64 years old. Millions more adults are living with addiction — to alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription medications.

What Can Companies Do?

Healthy employees are the heart of a healthy organization. People who do not misuse drugs or alcohol take fewer unscheduled absences, are more productive and are less likely to cause injuries to themselves and their coworkers. In addition, an average healthy employee costs the business an estimated $10,400 a year on health care compared to nearly $26,000 a year for an employee with a substance use disorder.

Employers are in a unique position to take actions that support a healthy workforce.

  • Maintain a drug-free workplace. Companies with a drug-free workplace report better health status among employees and their family members, as well as lower absenteeism, accidents, downtime and turnover.
  • Offer benefits that boost employee health. Ensure the company’s health insurance plan covers SUD prevention, treatment and recovery services and offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes help for alcohol and substance misuse. Promote these benefits and encourage staff to use them. People have a higher rate of successful addiction treatment and relapse prevention when addiction treatment is strongly encouraged by their employer.
  • Train staff to recognize and respond to red flags. First and foremost, supervisors must be able to spot signs of addiction and/or current inebriation and respond appropriately to ensure safety for all. In addition, they need to understand relevant laws and company policies.
  • Create a supportive work environment. Addiction is an isolating disease. Create an environment that facilitates connection for employees dealing with SUD by hosting 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Provide flexible scheduling and time off. Allow employees to take time off during the workday or work a flexible schedule so they can attend health care appointments and support group meetings. Provide access to private space for telehealth appointments. Grant leaves of absence when needed to treat SUD.

Comagine Health is Here to Help

These are just a few of the tactics companies can use to craft an environment that helps employees prevent and treat addiction — and stay healthy. Comagine Health can assist your organization with creating and refining methods for addressing substance use disorder in the workplace. Please contact us to learn more.

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