By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business Times
Marian Young remembers how surprised she was when a colleague informed her that the construction industry was second only to hospitality in the amount of workplace substance abuse.
“I had no idea,” said Young, president and co-founder of BrightFields Inc., a full-service environmental consulting firm in Wilmington. “This is the sort of issue where you can’t get up to speed fast enough.”
That bit of knowledge prompted Young to beef up her drug-testing policies ahead of state-mandated requirements and introduce a user-friendly support program to help employees with substance-abuse issues get healthy and ensure that healthy employees remain that way.
The misuse and addiction to opioids is a national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare. Every day, more than 115 people die after overdosing on opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Delaware, drug overdose deaths first exceeded motor vehicle fatalities in 2009 and have been climbing ever since, according to figures from the state Division of Public Health. In 2016, 308 deaths were attributed to drug overdose, compared to 228 the previous year.
“Delaware, like the nation, is facing one of the greatest public-health crises of our generation,” said Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, who chairs Delaware’s Behavioral Health Consortium.
Employers often overlook the problem because they are focused on day-to-day business operations, such as maintaining a workforce or managing performance issues, and may not see the underlying problem of addiction or because of an “it can’t happen here” mentality.
“I don’t have a lot of clients who view what they see on TV or what they know personally or socially as a workplace problem,” said Warren S. Cook, director of consulting services and managing member of SymbianceHR in New Castle. “I almost have to teach them that these employees that come to work for them are the ones that are exposed daily to this potential problem. There’s an immediate disconnect sometimes between society and the workplace.”
Cook also notes that smaller companies or those in less safety-sensitive industries are the least prepared to deal with drug issues in the workplace. “A lot of them don’t even understand what a drug test is,” he said.
“Midsized businesses and the Fortune 500s have been going through this for years, so they have clear criteria and the resources to support programs to help employees.”
Opioid abuse can take employers by surprise, but the effects of the opioid epidemic are impossible to ignore — and costly. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, substance abuse costs American employers $81 billion annually in terms of increased health costs, absenteeism and “presenteeism,” i.e., being physically present but functionally absent.
Drug abuse also dramatically increases worker’s compensation and disability costs.
Testing for opioid abuse is effective but complicated, according to experts. Workers who are using drugs illegally aren’t covered by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), but former addicts are protected from discrimination.
Moreover, many employees use opioids legally, so employers must use caution when conducting drug tests. A positive result could trigger the ADA’s accommodation policies.
And if an employer believes that drug use was involved in a workplace accident or injury, that could trigger a post-accident/injury test under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
“There are a lot of side issues so it’s really a legal quagmire for employers,” said Jennifer C. Jauffret, an attorney who heads the labor and employment group at Richards Layton & Finger in Wilmington.
Employers uncomfortable about broaching the issue of substance abuse in their business now realize it’s in their best interest to be proactive. A survey by the National Business Group on Health revealed that 80 percent of employers across industries and around the country are becoming increasingly concerned about opioid abuse in the workplace, with more than half stating they are very concerned.
“Businesses have an important role in promoting the health and safety of employees and managing risks in the workplace,” said Hall-Long. “I think businesses are beginning to rethink how they approach drug policies in the workplace and how they handle employees who might be struggling with addiction.”
An opportunity to help
The work arena provides an opportunity to tackle the problem of addiction. Employees are more likely to enter into treatment if it is initiated by an employer, said Wesley R. Bowman, Ph.D., director of the Delaware Family Center and manager of employee assistance programs at W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., The Nemours Foundation and BrightFields Inc.
“The employer can have the most leverage — vs. family and friends — in getting someone who’s addicted to accept help,” he said. “The addict will try hard to hold onto their job their health, their relationships and other valued things in life. They need money to survive and feed their families.”
Employment Assistance Programs (EAPs) provide a way for employers to engage employees in a non-confrontational and confidential manner. EAPs date back to the 1950s when most substance abuse involved alcohol. BrightFields employees are entitled to five sessions per year. If the problem is not resolved, they are given a referral to another mental health provider.
EAP services are available to the entire family and are not limited to substance abuse issues. Counseling sessions address financial problems, relationship issues, family problems and work/life balance issues, stressors that can impact the workplace and lead to drug addiction in certain predisposed individuals, said Bowman.
Young agrees. “It’s always been my quest to find somebody who I could send my staff to if they had any kind of stress,” she said. “Before you get to the addiction point, it is stress that’s causing it. We feel that by giving people someone caring to talk to that we trust they are going to be able to work out whatever they
feel challenged with.”
An EAP is only effective if the employees use it and in order to use it, they must know it’s available. Young makes sure her 48-member workforce is aware of the benefit. “We have a two-page handout and Wes’ business cards are in the office,” she said. We remind people at meetings and we bring in Wes every once in a while so that people can meet him.”
Young, who has consulted with Bowman herself, says her goal is to remove the stigma of seeking help for addiction as well as other mental health issues. “When you break your leg, you go to the doctor,” she said. “If you’re super stressed-out, you might not want to go to a counselor because it’s a stigma. We’re here to break down the stigma and reassure people that it’s OK, he’s a great guy and it’s going to be helpful to you.”