Employers deal with drug addicts in the workplace

ADDISON COUNTY — Substance abuse and the debilitating affects that addiction can have on individuals and communities has been in the news a lot lately.
Gov. Peter Shumlin gave a harrowing State of the State Address back in 2014 that called attention to the opiate addiction crisis, and task forces at the state and local levels have been formed to help provide services and tools for recovery.
In his first day of office, Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order that established the Opiate Coordination Council, carrying forward a campaign promise to respond to the crisis from prevention, treatment and law enforcement angles.
Organizations at the local level such as the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), Turning Point Center and the Addison County Committee on Opiate Addiction are working to support and assist hundreds of people in Addison County who are struggling with addiction, as are health practices like Bristol Internal Medicine and Brandon Medical Center. Support groups have formed and resources like addictionhelpvt.com (formed by the Addison County Committee on Opiate Addiction) provide safe forums and increase education in our communities. But addiction is still a disease that carries with it social stigma and incites fear.
To help break some of these barriers and bring the conversation forward, Addison County Chamber of Commerce President Sue Hoxie invited some of the area’s experts on drug addiction to give a seminar on “how drug addiction affects your business” last Wednesday, Jan. 18.
These experts would address warning signs that might tip an employer off to a drug abuse problem. It was hoped that the seminar will start a discussion about how people who are in recovery from addiction can still be valuable and trust-worthy employees.
“Given that opioid addiction is such an issue in our community, it’s safe to assume that area businesses may employ workers who are struggling with addiction or are in recovery,” Hoxie said. “We hope our members can better understand the warning signs, how they can assist employees, and learn about the many resources that are available locally or from the state.”
While attendance at the seminar at Ilsley Public Library was low, the three presenters were able to outline some compelling messages for how to support those seeking help.
“Addiction is a behavioral and chemical challenge,” says Bob Donnis, community member of the Addison County Committee on Opiate Addiction. It develops from a habitual behavior seeking a “feel good” reaction to chemicals released in the brain. The problem, Donnis explained, is that while that “feel good” reaction was easy to obtain the first time an individual got high (and his/her brain was introduced to the chemical), the brain’s chemistry quickly changes and tolerance to the chemical exposure increases. In other words, it gets harder and harder to feel good, and therefore requires more and more exposure to the chemical in order to elicit that “feel good” reaction.
Understanding what is happening to someone who is addicted makes it easier to understand how you might be able to help, Donnis explains, which is why he and the Committee on Opiate Addiction work to provide information and resources not just to those suffering from addiction, but also to those around them. Their website, addictionhelpvt.com, is therefore an informational tool as well as an emergency tool and a resource tool for more facts.
“Addiction is a progressive disease,” explains Moira Cook, Addison County district director for Vermont’s Department of Health. It can vary significantly from person to person and therefore it’s possible for someone to be a “functioning addict” for a very long time.
In the workplace, that can be challenging, as addicts don’t always present the same symptoms. Moreover, warning signs such as lateness, poor performance, irritability, or withdrawal can be hard to detect in a workplace, or they can be indications of unrelated issues.
The best thing to do, Cook says, is to reach out to them and figure out what’s going on: “It’s not always an easy conversation to have and must be handled delicately, but simply talking to an employee when there’s suspicious behavior is a good place to start.”
Steve Reigle works with the employment services branch of the Counseling Service of Addison County. It’s his job to help people who have barriers to employment find jobs and stay in the workforce. His best advice to employers is to focus on the job that needs to get done and make sure the employee is keeping up with performance.
“As employers you can’t legally force an employee to seek help,” Reigle said. “Even if you suspect an addiction, the best thing you can do is hold someone accountable for their behavior and performance in their job and make sure they know when you see it slip.”
In many cases, Reigle says, their job might be the one thing that seems stable for someone suffering from addiction. Understanding that their job is at risk if their behavior doesn’t change lights a fire under them that provides the incentive to “jump off the platform” and seek help.
The CSAC employment services program is funded by a grant through the United Way of Addison County and has provided assistance to between 40 and 60 local people this past year. The demand is high and Reigle says they almost always have a waitlist of people who need help. The program handles mental, physical, psychological and “real world” challenges that people face as they reintegrate into workplace environments and cope with how to interact with people who may or may not know about their addiction issues.
The program also supports and educates employers working with people in recovery and helps them know what they can expect.
“Simply because someone uses or has used (drugs) does not make them a bad person and does not make them a bad employee,” said Reigle.
But there are a variety of challenges that these people might face, ranging from losing their driver’s licenses and not having easy means of transportation to struggling with insecure housing, domestic issues, physical pain and feelings of illness while they are on the road to recovery.
Thanks to this multi-pronged approach, this CSAC employment services program has been quite successful, boasting a 90 percent employment rate among people who have gone through the program. Similarly, thanks to the outreach and informational efforts of the program, more and more employers in Addison County are opening to the possibility of giving a job to those suffering from addiction.
The goal is to provide evidence to addicts that there is hope that recovery can enable them to resume a productive role in society, and also to employers that while addiction can have horrible affects on individuals and performance in the workplace, it is a disease that can be resolved and former addicts can again be excellent friends, family members, and employees.

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