The problem of substance abuse is a growing epidemic that crosses all demographics and lifestyles—and substance abusers are more likely to work in an office than to be living on the street.
Those who suffer from an addiction or a mental illness often feel ashamed and uncomfortable, and they’re often too much in denial regarding the severity of their issues to discuss them openly. They do not easily ask for help and do not want to be seen as different, weak or vulnerable.
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Although there are clear substance abuse policies for employees who work in safety-sensitive positions, most companies in Canada have no policy to identify employees at risk for drug addiction. How effective are companies in dealing with employees who need professional help? What policies and procedures do they follow? Are HR managers trained to understand addiction and mental health?
Many employers have employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) for their workforce, usually accessed voluntarily.
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Company HR professionals are trained to support front-line managers when they require assistance with employees, but are managers equipped to recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction and mental health issues? Are employees knowledgeable about what is happening with their colleagues?
HR professionals are most effective when they know the strengths and developmental areas of their employees. Really knowing the employees is the only way to truly be able to coach, develop and guide them so they can achieve their goals and be productive at work. HR plays a significant role in conducting those difficult and uncomfortable conversations.
Noticing an employee is arriving late more than usual, taking longer breaks or lunches and making more errors are three of the most common red flags. Others include taking more sick days, having interpersonal difficulties with peers and provoking customer complaints. Low productivity, a new desire to work in isolation, changes in mood or personality and changes in physical appearance (including sudden weight gain or loss and slovenly attire) are also warning signs.
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Ensuring HR professionals can effectively discuss these problems is another challenge, particularly if these professionals have a tendency to exhibit unproductive behaviour. They might want to “play counsellor” or get overly involved in an employee’s personal life.
Being overly friendly could also be counterproductive. HR professionals shouldn’t send mixed messages. Nor should they minimize or avoid issues because they are uncomfortable.
Improving psychological health and well-being in the workplace starts with everyone. For an intervention or discussion to take place, HR professionals need specific policies and procedures that are easy to follow. They need to accept mental health and addiction issues as real and present in the workplace.
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HR workers should review usage data with their EFAPs and develop strategies, including training other HR professionals to support managers and leaders. It’s important to educate all employees on how to help one another, and train managers and leaders in how to recognize signs and symptoms. Finally, HR professionals should be willing to have difficult conversations, provide solutions and engage peers when things get tricky.
Planning and awareness on the part of HR professionals can go a long way toward ensuring a healthy work environment for everyone.
Dr. Anita Teslak is vice-president, operations, executive health and performance, at GreeneStone Healthcare Corp.
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Have you every had to deal with an employee with a substance abuse problem? How did you handle the situation? Share your experience using the comment section below.