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Proactively addressing addictions in the workplace

What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think about an addict? The majority of individuals envision a person who is sitting in a back alley with a bottle in hand, or a needle protruding from their arm. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) discovered 77 per cent of drug addicts and 90 per cent of alcoholics are employed. The addicts of today include nurses, lawyers, surgeons, teenagers and soccer moms. Despite the fact the face of addictions has changed over the past 50 years, the challenges remain the same.

Substance abuse while on the job remains to be a serious issue for numerous companies, and the safety of many is at stake. CCSA reported that 40 per cent of workplace accidents that result in death involve drug or alcohol use. In an effort to target this problem, companies are starting to look into random drug and alcohol testing. Recently, the arbitration board rejected Suncor’s goal to do just that.

Maybe it is time to step back and take a closer look at this problem from another angle. Actor Russel Brand stated, “Drugs and alcohol are not my problem. Reality is my problem. Drugs and alcohol are my solution.”

Members of society are quick to point their fingers at substances like marijuana, cocaine and alcohol as the problem. However, as Brand points out, that is not where the problem lies. I believe that we need to start taking a closer look at why so many people are engaging in the use of substances in the workplace. Long hours, fatigue and isolation certainly play their role. Yet, there is one thing that we all possess; the inner desire to be balanced and to feel whole.

Think about an individual who does not feel complete or someone who might experience incredible discomfort in their own skin. Perhaps they constantly feel like something is missing within them that others seem to naturally possess. Now imagine that one day this person takes a substance or engages in an activity like gambling and the emptiness inside of them immediately begins to disappear. The darkness lifts, and finally they are able to feel alive.

As time goes by, that habit eventually evolves into a need, and the person continues to engage in their destructive ways in the face of countless negative consequences. The person may experience broken relationships, legal ramifications, health issues or employment problems. Without doubt, the workplace is impacted.

I believe that our voice is our greatest tool. Our voice is the medium which allows us to release our darkness so that healing can take place. But where is the incentive for an individual to speak out about any internal challenges if that person believes that they will be met with judgment? Many employees are embarrassed to speak out because they fear they will be labelled as weak and unreliable and that it will prevent them from moving up the chain in their company. It is important to remember that in the same way a person does not choose to have depression or schizophrenia, nobody chooses to become an addict.

While writing in my grade 12 yearbook, I certainly did not write the words “an addict” beside the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I encounter countless people who have great intentions to assist people who are struggling with addictions, but they fail to understand how to do so. The reality is that nobody can address something they do not understand. Information is power and a deeper understanding provides individuals with the opportunity to make informed decisions.

The workplace can be transformed into a safe and supportive environment that encourages individuals to acknowledge their feelings and find their voice. It is imperative for people to understand their feelings are valid, common and there are resources in society to help. A proactive approach will allow people to step out from the shadows of shame and embarrassment and into the light.

As I visit various companies, I find the focus from human resource professionals is typically directed towards individuals who are personally being challenged with their own substance abuse issues. But what about the employees who have a loved one struggling with addictions?

More than one-quarter (26 per cent) of employees have substance abuse or addiction issues in their families, according to Hazelden, an addiction treatment centre with locations across the United States.

Of these, nearly one-half reported being distracted and less productive in the workplace because of an addicted family member. It is important to note that someone who has a loved one struggling with an addiction will display many of the same signs in the workplace as someone who has an addiction themselves.

A non-invasive approach to open a door for anyone who is struggling is to gently say “I don’t mean to pry, but I just wanted to let you know that I am concerned. I wanted to let you know that I would be happy to listen if you ever needed to talk.” We all possess a desire to be seen and heard and these two lines meet both of these basic needs.

There does not have to be an elaborate model or theory. What we can provide people with is an invitation, an empty seat, compassion and a space free from judgment. We don’t have to be a counsellor, but we all have the ability to listen. Every employee and employer can benefit from these invitations — and it does not have to only take place in an office setting.

It is critical to remember if an individual does eventually approach you with her challenges, you should drop what you are doing and listen. She took one courageous step forward and failure to listen will likely cause her to take two steps backwards.

In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace says, “Everyone dies but not everyone truly lives.” Many people believe that they are living, but most have a tendency to live in short spurts, and exist in between.

When I was an active addict, I did not fear death, but rather life. I had no idea how to live. What if we taught people to live? What would that look like?

Stigma and shame prevents people from living. I believe that the workplace can be an environment free from judgment where stigma is replaced with compassion. Naturally, this will decrease the number of accidents, and lead to enhanced productivity, less turnover, and heightened team morale.

Allan Kehler

Allan Kehler is a professional speaker based in Saskatoon. After years of perseverance through mental illness and addictions, he now inspires others to speak of their own personal challenges. He is the author of Stepping out from the Shadows: A Guide to Understanding & Healing From Addictions. He has conducted hundreds of lectures while gaining national attention. For more information contact Kehler at awkehler@gmail.com or (306) 612-3233, or visit www.outfromtheshadows.ca.
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