By Duffy Perkins 2017-08-09 04:42:01
Improvement begins with “I” There’s an Addict on the Team » Navigating the murky waters of alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders in the workplace. Identifying substance abuse or dependence in a family member can be fairly straightforward. You may notice that the person is frequently intoxicated or displays erratic behavior that makes family functions more difficult. He may have slurred speech after a certain point in the day. She may drink four times as much as anyone else at the dinner table. He may be inappropriate or cruel in conversation. She may sleep through the day and regularly miss appointments. And these activities and behaviors may be quietly tolerated and excused by everyone in the family. If you choose to confront your family member about their addiction, however, your strategy can be buttressed by a foundation of love, compassion and the desire for a long-standing, healthy relationship. But what if this person isn’t a family member, and instead, is your coworker? The waters become a bit trickier to navigate when there are professional standards and relationships in effect. It can be difficult to understand your own and others’ expectations, limitations and responsibilities in dealing with a coworker struggling with substance abuse, because workplace addiction is not a frequently discussed topic at most Monday morning staff meetings. But speaking up and confronting the realities is often critical, not only for the health and well-being of your coworker, but also for the health of your workplace. A National Problem, A Local Crisis While there are many categories of substance abuse, for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus primarily on alcoholism. Keep in mind, however, that the symptoms, consequences and responses are fundamentally very similar, whether your coworker is hooked on alcohol, stimulants, hallucinogens or opioids. There are too many studies and resources on substance abuse to cite here, but it is estimated that approximately 10% of the U.S. workforce is dependent on alcohol. Some research finds that employees in the foodservice industry come in even higher than the national average, at just over 16%. Team members who suffer from alcohol addiction miss roughly 10 workdays for every one that is missed by a non-addicted colleague. Addicts are five times more likely to suffer accidents in the workplace, and are five times as likely to request Workers’ Compensation at some point. Healthcare costs for addicts are, in general, three times higher than for the average employee. These statistics paint only the broadest brush strokes of a workplace that hosts an addict. Addiction affects every aspect of a person’s life, and the hours the individual spends at work are no exception. Perhaps the most telling indicator of addiction’s influence on the workplace is that addicts are only two-thirds as productive as their healthy counterparts. If you are the coworker of someone caught in the grip of substance abuse, a significant portion of this workload may fall on your shoulders, without compensation or recognition. But that’s not the only potential consequence. Team morale often suffers. Someone from outside the team—a parent, teacher or vendor—notices. Worse, someone could get seriously hurt. A delivery driver could have an accident behind the wheel. A food prep technician could fail to follow cross-contamination procedures for meals served to students with food allergies. The addict could suffer cuts or burns. Still, it’s common to feel hesitant about reporting your coworker for substance abuse in the workplace—especially considering how much we avoid confrontation on this issue among our family and friends! What if that person or her allies retaliate against you? What if you’re wrong? What if you report your concerns, but no one takes action? Speaking up takes courage. If you are reasonably certain that a coworker has a genuine problem, it is your responsibility to speak up and alert your supervisor to the issue. In most instances, there are policies and procedures set in place to ensure your colleague gets help. Signs of Addiction Before you address your colleague, or discuss his or her behavior with anyone in your workplace, you need to be reasonably confident that substance abuse is the problem—and this can be a challenge. A coworker who suffers a hangover the morning after a high-spirited evening doesn’t necessarily have a problem—unless this happens over and over again. The colleague who has bouts of manic behavior might seem drunk or high, but actually may have a mental disorder. Stay alert to subtle yet distinct signs that will reveal if abuse or addiction likely has a grip on the individual. It can be helpful to think of alcohol addiction in three stages, according to numerous recovery experts, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Identifying the stage that seems to illustrate your coworker will help you communicate with your supervisor about the severity of the problems. The First Stage. Your coworker may drink to relieve tension on a regular basis. Frequent tardiness or absenteeism could become an issue. You may note hangover symptoms or smell alcohol on her breath. He may openly drink during business hours (such as at a work lunch). Or she may make excuses to leave work early. The individual may seem to move more slowly or be easily confused by standard procedures. The failure to complete tasks properly or on deadline may be evident. Your coworker may blatantly lie to you. Serious addicts are excellent liars, especially to themselves. If you feel he is not being straightforward, do not take it personally; it is simply a symptom of the disease. It is also common for alcohol abusers and other addicts to overreact to real or imaginary criticism. It is important for you, as a coworker, to be supportive without enabling your coworker (more on that in a bit). The Middle Stage. You may notice your coworker’s hands are shaking, or that she frequently complains of illness. Have you discerned a change in your colleague’s personality and disposition? Formerly engaged and curious, he may be wholly disinterested and disconnected. She may be lethargic or erratic. He may become undependable. In the first stage, your coworker may have felt reactive to perceived slights and “undue” criticism in the workplace. Now, however, she is downright resentful of others and exaggerates her work accomplishments without reason. He will have a hard time concentrating. The Final Stage. Your coworker will lose all interest in proper hygiene and eating. While tardiness was the initial problem, now he is not showing up at all, frequently without notice or apology. When she is at work, she is completely undependable, disappearing for long periods, often to drink or sleep. He may be visibly intoxicated. Your coworker will decline all activities that could interfere with her drinking. Let’s Have a Talk Deciding to discuss or report your coworker’s addiction behaviors can be a difficult dilemma. Significant friendships form at work—whether in an office or a kitchen—and you may feel that going to your supervisor is an act of betrayal. Still, you have a responsibility to yourself, your other coworkers, your customers—and to the troubled person, too—to take the steps needed to ensure the workplace is as healthy and safe as possible. Also, remember that early intervention can save everyone a great deal of time, money and most importantly, pain. If you suspect or it has been reported to you that a member of the team is drinking to excess on a regular basis, and you have a personal relationship (either a friendship with the individual or a supervisor/employee dynamic), then be upfront and address your concerns head on. The individual may concede immediately, acknowledging that her drinking has gotten out of control recently, especially if there is an underlying circumstance, such as recent grief, a financial crisis or marital problems. If this happens, you have an opportunity to demonstrate both empathy and sympathy, while leaning on the supportive structures of the workplace to discuss policy, consequences and the significance of self-management. “I can imagine the pain and upheaval you feel at the end of your long marriage. I know you have a lot going on, but I hope you see that continuing in this way is self-destructive. I want you to know that you are very important to our team. We can’t lose you, but we need you to be 100 percent when you’re at work.” This type of approach can allow your coworker to feel the potential to exert some control, when other aspects of her life seem to be spinning out of control. It can be a very revelatory message for an alcohol abuser in the first and second stages of addiction. But if the conversation leads to reactionary accusations and defensive excuses by your team member, don’t be tempted to respond in kind. Alcoholics in later stages of addiction will be quick to feel criticism and rally against it. Remind yourself that your colleague may be feeling overwhelmed, and an aggravated response to a simple question may be their way of asserting control over a situation. Keep your statements focused on documented facts, such as frequency of absenteeism and other work performance indicators. “I have simply noticed that your behavior has changed recently, and I wanted to ask if there was anything we needed to discuss. If you ever want to talk to me, I’m always available.” Know Your Role The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as “a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychological, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal.” Recognize that if an employee fears immediate dismissal, he or she is unlikely to admit to the extent of the struggle until the addiction has progressed to a point where outside intervention is essential. Alcoholism and other physical addictions certainly are worthy of a compassionate response. But you need to take care that compassion does not become enabling. Do not participate in drinking with your coworker if you suspect there is a problem. Do not lend him money or cover her work lapses. Don’t risk your own job performance review. Be very wary about attempting to counsel your colleague on your own; don’t get involved in personal family matters. Consult your organization’s employee relations resources. For example, you may have an employee handbook that includes language regarding the organization’s drug and alcohol policy. There may defined steps you are expected to take to report your concerns as a coworker or confront them as a supervisor. Reach out to the organization’s human resources department for guidance. All members of the team have a responsibility to one another—and to the productive and efficient operation of the workplace. If behaviors haven’t changed or gotten worse, it may be appropriate to approach your supervisor. Be professional; keep the work context primary. “I’ve noticed a few things have been mishandled, and I have concerns that the oversights are due to a personal issue one of my team members may be suffering.” An Official Problem If you are a supervisor, you are responsible for the day-to-day operations and on-the-job conduct of your team, not for diagnosing an individual employee’s personal problems or recommending treatment. Of course, it’s rarely that cut-and-dried in real-world situations. Be aware of your organization’s requirements for responding to either a report from a coworker or your own observations and interactions. It’s likely that, at minimum, you will have to start a paper trail, documenting the facts about work performance. It will be your responsibility to sit down and discuss the issue with your employee, focusing on how you have monitored and reviewed objective and subjective standards for work behavior, from attendance and deadline management to customer service and teamwork. You can approve (or deny) leave requests, and take disciplinary action as necessary. All of these steps can be conducted without specifically confronting the employee about suspected addiction or dependence. You want to make it clear to the individual that you are responding to specific issues that affect the workplace and to communicate that this is not a situation to take lightly. If the employee is unable to turn things around and the consequences of addictive behaviors persist, then you will have to involve the organization’s human resources or employee relations teams. This is to make sure confidentiality is not violated, that your employee feels supported professionally, and that your own actions as a supervisor are appropriate. If the employee is willing to seek help, it may be appropriate to suggest she or he seek the services of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Many organizations offer an EAP service, often made available through an insurance provider. The goal of such services is to provide short-term counseling, assessment and referrals for employees with a variety of personal issues, ranging from a need for legal and financial assistance to concerns about drug and alcohol abuse. Each EAP’s service is different, but the vast majority are completely confidential. Sometimes, however, the EAP’s professional counselor acts as an intermediary between the employee and the supervisor or organization, communicating the extent of the problem, the options available for the future, and the employee’s rights. An EAP counselor may recommend treatment for the employee, and follow up on his or her progress. This is important to know, because it means that you, as the supervisor and representative of the organization, are not responsible for helping your team member to navigate sobriety. You are simply responsible for creating a supportive and healthy work environment. If the EAP advises treatment, it is often the role of the organization’s human resources office to write a “firm choice” letter to the employee, communicating clearly that due to specific performance, conduct or extended leave, specific treatment is necessary in order to remain employed by the organization. The individual is given the choice between treatment and dismissal. While this hard-line approach may seem harsh, it is usually a final step in a long series of attempts to help the addict. Consider that such a “hitting rock bottom” reality check is often critical to the long-term success of the treatment program, and your team member’s ultimate health and happiness. You can continue to remind the individual that this strategy is intended for the good of the entire team and that she or he remains a valued member of that team. Back to Work As your employee determines the best treatment option for her or his unique circumstances, the best thing that you can do is to hold the individual accountable, educate yourself on the nature of the disease and refuse to be an enabler. He or she needs your support and needs help to move forward. But in the end, the individual employee is ultimately the one responsible for his or her recovery. 16% Foodservice industry workforce in the U.S. dependent on alcohol BONUS WEB CONTENT There’s an Addict on the Team This month’s online exclusives include a list of resources to help you respond appropriately and effectively to a coworker, friend or family member suffering with a substance abuse addiction. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Duffy Perkins is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.
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