Addictions Costly To Employers

June 17, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Substance abuse disorders can lead to absenteeism,

high turnover, lower productivity levels and worse in the workplace.

Other than outright dismissal, however, how should employers deal with such situations?

"Employers do have a role in helping to respond to this serious health-care problem in our society," said Michael Reagan, president of Project Rehab. "It affects the workplace environment significantly and it can be addressed."

Reagan said substance abuse is a disease that can and should be managed, as one would manage hypertension or another chronic health condition.

Reagan was one of the panelists at this month's Alliance For Health First

Friday Forum, which was the last of the series for the season. Other panelists included Bill Paxton, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services director of business development for addiction services; Mark Witte, Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Network of West Michigan population services manager; and Calmeze Dudley, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Mental Health Services medical director.

Reagan said substance abuse disorders cost the American economy $100 billion a year, according to figures from the Society for Human Resource Management. Factors like absenteeism, high turnover, late or tardy behavior, workplace accidents, damage to equipment, lowered productivity levels and theft all contribute to the yearly costs.

Reagan said, "It manifests itself in a lot of different ways."

The use of drugs or alcohol affects the workplace of one of every five employees ages 18 to 25 and one of every eight employees ages 26 to 34, Reagan said.

Those with a substance abuse disorder also are two times more likely to ask for early time off, three times more likely to be late for work, three times more likely to be absent for eight days of work or more, and four times more likely to be involved in accidents.

Substance abuse also causes higher health-care and health insurance costs.

"Health-care benefits ultimately are 300 times higher among those who use alcohol and other drugs than among employees who don't," Reagan said.

One of the ways employers can help cut the costs of substance abuse at the workplace is by establishing an employee assistance program, either within the company or by contracting with an outside program such as Project Rehab's EmployeeAssistanceCenter

"The other thing they can do is establish their own substance use policies, which can include testing for reasonable cause," he said.

Employers also can help educate employees about substance abuse disorders and their impact, Reagan said.

"They can provide education to the employees about the prevention of the problem, the cost of the problem and that successful treatments do exist,"

he said.

Though there is a perception that drug users do not hold jobs, Reagan said this is not true.

"Seventy percent of people that use illicit drugs work every day," he said. "Employers have a right to be concerned about substance abuse because of its affects on the workplace."

Reagan said investing in programs to assist employees with substance abuse disorders is worth the cost.

"For every dollar you invest in your employee assistance program, there's about a $5 to $7 return over time," he said.

Pine Rest's Paxton said the issue of substance abuse and the way it is viewed and treated has changed dramatically.

Where it was once called substance abuse or chemical dependency, it is now called a "substance use disorder," which may be substance abuse or substance dependency. The term "substance" now also includes tobacco and alcohol.

Paxton said research has shown substance use disorders are a disease of the brain. When one is dependant on a substance, Paxton said, it is because of genetics or extensive stress, which can destroy the dopamine system in the brain. After the system is damaged, a craving of a substance will send a signal to the brain that falsely associates the substance with survival.

"It's not just a beer anymore," he said. "It's life — literally."

Getting help for substance abuse or dependency also is different. Paxton said programs are now based on individual needs and situations rather than a punitive approach, and it is acknowledged that if a person were to relapse and need more treatment, it is part of the process rather than a failure. Paxton said the process of ending dependency can take multiple tries and should be treated as any other disease that needs maintenance.

"People need to learn how to manage their disease," he said.

Witte said funding for helping people control and manage substance use disorders is declining.

"There are fewer dollars being spent on an increasing population," he said.

Dudley said there are benefits packages offered through Blue Cross Blue Shield that companies can offer employees.

"There is a range of different options for whatever meets their needs," he said.

The First Friday Forums address key health issues and provide networking opportunities for health-care consumers, providers, purchasers and educators.

The forum will be broadcast on Grand Rapids area cable station 24 at 7 p.m., June 24.    

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