Substance use disorder (SUD) is an illness. This is a fact. At Lionrock, we’ve known this all along. In 2016, then Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D. stated it publicly, saying of SUD, “It is not a moral failing, or evidence of a character flaw, but a chronic disease of the brain that deserves our compassion and care.” Still a stigma exists about SUD because too many people view it as a weakness and something that, with discipline and willpower, can, and should, be overcome. 

From time to time, we’ll share this reminder: that substance use disorder is not a weakness. Why? Because we must treat SUD like the bonafide healthcare issue it is  – and that includes on the job.

Currently, our employment rules about SUDs are wrong because they reflect our incorrect perception of SUDs. We perceive people struggling with drug and alcohol problems as lazy hedonists, as bad people lacking in discipline. As a result, several incorrect myths persist about SUDs in the workplace including:

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.

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.

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.

Knowing the facts about SUDs is key to ending the stigma and creating healthy and productive workplaces. Want to learn more? Contact us.