On May 9, South Metro Denver Chamber hosted a smaller-than-usual crowd of business and government leaders brave enough to delve into the thorny topic of substance abuse in the workplace.
Ethan Dexter, business development director for Denver Springs, an inpatient and outpatient mental health and addiction treatment facility in Englewood, presented the crushing statistics. Over 1 million Coloradans experience mental illness or addiction in the workplace. Although considered one of the healthiest states overall, Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. People are reluctant to admit feeling depressed or suicidal but are willing to admit to feeling stressed. When asked, 40 percent of workers said their job is very stressful. Stress is a key factor in addiction. Substance abusers are 10 times more likely to miss work than their sober counterparts. Replacing a salaried employee costs six to nine months of productivity. Three out of four Americans who suffer from substance addiction are in the workforce. The list goes on.
Employers can help. Taking stock of their workplace environment and seeking ways to be more supportive of employees’ mental health is a good way to start. Communicating with workers regularly about how they’re doing and whether they have suggestions to improve the workplace environment is another. Encouraging employees to use their vacation time to unplug and fully disconnect from their jobs is a well-known tool to reduce stress. Lastly, providing information to employees on where they can get help, should they need it, is both practical and demonstrates genuine concern.
Labor and employment defense attorney David C. Roth addressed the legal aspects of workplace addiction. He stressed the importance of businesses having a stated policy prohibiting illegal drug use. Roth explained that although addiction is considered a disease covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the current illegal use of drugs is not a disability under any circumstances. He pointed out that the unauthorized use of legal drugs (e.g., taking opiates in excess of prescribed quantities) is an illegal use of drugs. Employees can be required to submit to drug tests at any time during their employment. Roth advised employers to carefully communicate with workers if they suspect substance abuse before doing anything. Taking punitive action based on assuming violation of substance abuse policies can lead to a negative outcome for the business that affects other employees and results in costly unpleasant litigation.
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