State hopes to change way addiction treated in the workplace

January 15, 2019 GMT

With the opioid crisis in the state and nation continuing to deepen, Connecticut Department of Public Health officials have turned their attention to what they see as a crucial facet of the issue — the effect on workplaces.

According to DPH, substance use and abuse in the workplace costs Connecticut employers millions of dollars a year in lost productivity, days away from work and other expenses — and the way many of the workplaces treat employees struggling with addiction issues is badly outdated, said Thomas St. Louis, occupational health program supervisor for the DPH.

“Historically, the addicted worker is treated as someone who made a personal choice to abuse drugs and should be removed from the workplace,” St. Louis said. Whereas “addiction is a chronic medical condition and a lot of people become addicted through no fault of their own.”

St. Louis said a more compassionate approach to handling addiction can encourage workers to seek help, improving their chances of recovery and of keeping their jobs.

Hoping to direct workplaces in the best way to handle substance use among staff, the DPH published a multidisciplinary paper, The Opioid Crisis and Connecticut’s Workforce, this week.

The older, more punitive methods of tackling the issue, he said, can discourage workers from coming forward and getting help, for fear of losing their jobs. “They struggle in silence,” St. Louis said.

He said that’s particularly upsetting as, contrary to popular belief, addiction isn’t a conscious choice for many people. Often, St. Louis said, workers become addicted after receiving painkillers in response to an injury or surgical procedure, and end up getting addicted to them.

According to the report, the number of overdose deaths nationwide was five times higher in 2016 than in 1999 — a time during which the sale of prescription opioids to pharmacies, hospitals and other facilities quadrupled.

The report grew out of two symposiums the DPH hosted in 2017 about the state of the opioid crisis in Connecticut and how the crisis should be handled by workplaces. The document outlines five key principles to “change the culture in U.S. workplaces as it pertains to addiction, from one of punitive judgment to one of encouragement and support.”

The principles include identifying substance abuse problems in staff and offering instant support of the workers — not just a case of connecting suffering employees with counseling or services, but working to remove stigma about addiction in the work place.

“Employers need to ensure that they are treating substance abuse as a disease, and discouraging stereotype terms such as ‘addicts, druggies’ in the workplace,” the paper reads.

Other principles outlined in the report include offering flexibility to workers who need treatment, such as allowing them to take a leave of absence for detoxification and treatment or simply allowing them time off during the day to attend counseling sessions or other recovery services.

St. Louis said it’s hard to know what the reaction to the paper will be, but he hopes it’s positive.

“What we hope (is) that employers get a hold of this and use it to review their policies around substance abuse and use in the workplace,” he said.

The document is a positive move toward changing the dialogue around addiction issues, said Angela Mattie, chair and professor of the department of healthcare management and organizational leadership at Quinnipiac University.

Addiction “needs to be treated like a disease and not like a short-coming of an individual,” she said. “We have to stop treating individuals like they’re bad people.”

Mattie said she’d like to see the DPH document spark a turning point in the way employers handle health care topics in general.

“Employers are one of the largest payers and providers of health care, so there’s a huge opportunity to make a difference to the health care system,” she said. “If they change the dialogue and make it acceptable for employees to seek help, that’s a major step forward.”