With 4 million Americans in treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs), and another 20.7 million in need of treatment, one would think that SUDs would be well understood. But in fact, there are many misconceptions about the illness. And when it comes to SUDs in the workplace, several incorrect myths persist.

  1. If my coworker had a problem, I would know. Despite the fact SUDs costs businesses a staggering $130 billion annually in lost productivity, contribute to 65 percent of on-the-job accidents and between 38 and 50 percent of all workers’ compensation claims, and, Americans struggling with opioid addiction miss approximately 50 percent more work than other employees, you won’t necessarily know if your coworker is struggling with SUD. Many people with SUD do not seek treatment and appear to be managing their lives. Part of the reason people hide their SUD is because of the stigma attached to the illness.
  2. Workers with SUD should be fired. Actually, employees with SUDs are protected by two federal laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, an employee can indeed be fired for using drugs or alcohol during work, or for lapses in work performance related to using drugs or alcohol. And at first glance, that seems reasonable. What manager doesn’t want the right to terminate an employee for poor job performance? But imagine for a moment that an employee had another illness, and then apply the same logic: that employee  can’t be fired for getting treatment but they can be fired if the company discovers they are sick on the job. It wouldn’t happen. Well, the American Medical Association and American Society of Addiction Medicine define addiction as a disease.
  3. SUDs affect workers, not managers. In fact, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 11.4 percent of employees in management struggle with a SUD. This is the sixth highest rate among all occupations. In a study, SAMHSA found 9.9 percent of managers reported past-month heavy alcohol use and 12.1 percent reported past-month illicit drug use, rates higher than the average for all occupations surveyed. There are several theories on why there is a higher average rate of SUD among managers than among other occupations. Research from The Journal of Affective Disorders suggests managers and executives may have higher rates of depressive symptoms and stress than the general population does. Also, men are more likely to struggle with addiction than women, and there is still a predominance of men in management positions at most companies and across many industries.
  4. Treatment disrupts work. It doesn’t have to. Telehealth solutions allow people to seek treatment without disrupting their lives. Online intensive outpatient programs allow workers to get help from the privacy of their homes or offices and there is no commute. As a result, employees find it easier to stay with treatment because of flexible schedules that fit their work and personal commitments. They can even continue treatment while traveling for work.
  5. SUD is a personal issue, not a work issue. The truth is untreated SUDs affect all of us.  For our healthcare system, people with untreated SUDs represent a substantial burden. That’s because people with untreated SUD are twice as likely to be admitted to emergency departments as people who do not have the disorder. Furthermore, untreated SUDs often lead to an occurrence of chronic health conditions and poorer health outcomes for individuals. For employers, the impact of lost productivity due to SUDs has been projected to be $180 billion annually and contributes to rising healthcare costs. And for society in general, alcohol played a role in 2.6% of all deaths in the United States in 2017.

Understanding SUDs at work is key to a healthy and productive workplace. Want to learn more? Contact us.