Addressing addictions

Going beyond wellness programs, self-help resources can bring gains

In thinking about people with addiction and substance abuse problems, old stigmas can lead to images of individuals so deep in their illnesses that they’ve lost their jobs, spiralled into an unseemly lifestyle and are consumed by the addiction. 

The reality is, of course, very much the reverse. The majority of people in Canada who struggle with addiction — about 77 per cent, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse — are employed and active in the workforce. 

But many also have an accompanying mental health condition such as depression. And employees with an addiction or substance misuse issue come with costly consequences.

Employees suffering from an addiction tend to function at about two-thirds of their capacity, according to the National Business Group on Health in Washington, D.C., and are 3.5 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident compared to those without an addiction. 

They also report having been either absent, late or unproductive more often. The additional cost of lost productivity is 20 to 25 per cent of direct costs (lost work time and benefits), according to Towers Watson. 

The cost of addiction in the workplace extends to the work environment and culture. More than being a distraction, affected employees can have a follow-on effect on total costs within an organization. Colleagues and managers alike may be impacted as a result of the complexities and challenges of working with someone in active addiction. 

With all of these costs adding up, many employers have introduced initiatives such as strict policies on substance abuse, wellness programs aimed at recognizing signs of dependency, and self-help resources for employees who feel they are losing control. Some also offer access to counselling services through an EAP program or extended health benefit.
Residential treatment
But most employers stop short of funding residential treatment programs — and herein lies the real problem. In Canada, most residential addiction treatment is self-funded or only partially covered by an employee benefits plan. 

An added challenge is publicly funded programs are difficult to access, with long waiting lists. Under these circumstances, the cycle of addiction tends to continue. 

Helping employees with addiction and substance abuse problems to recover isn’t just a nice thing to do — it makes good business sense. Funding treatment swiftly has been shown to reduce other medical benefit costs. Psychology services, semi-private insurance benefits and employee assistance program (EAP) costs are all managed lower when a treatment program is funded and managed.

Productivity is also greatly enhanced. Improvements were found in work-related absenteeism (by 76 per cent), tardiness (91 per cent) and productivity (76 per cent), six months after completing residential addiction treatment, according to a 2014 study done in partnership with Bellwood Health Services. For an employee making an hourly wage of $26.10, this translates into savings of about $6,447 per year. 

Similarly, benefits could cost as little as $100 per employee per year, according to research by the Edgewood Health Network. 

Creative solutions
As knowledge increases about the business benefits of treating addiction and substance abuse, some organizations are becoming creative about finding ways to fund treatment. 

One group representing a union of first responders, for example, has developed a “treatment fund trust.” Under this model, about five cents per hour is set aside from each employee’s pay. As the trust has grown, so too has support throughout the organization, in particular from management and leadership — many of whom, in the past, have had to deal with troublesome, high-risk behaviours associated with employee addictions — and even suicide. 

Taking that responsibility off their plate has mitigated follow-on trauma and cut back on many hours spent by senior leaders.

Perhaps the best non-financial benefit is the signal it sends to employees within the organization. Studies show employees who are provided with treatment experience greater job satisfaction and feelings of loyalty. And you can’t put a price on that. 

Chris Dawson is CEO of Edgewood Health Network in Toronto, which treats addictions and associated mental health conditions, offering workplace services from treatment to work reintegration through to prevention and wellness support. For more information, visit 

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