ELKHART — Employers, supported by an Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Wellness Council of Indiana program, are being asked to take a more proactive approach to substance abuse in the workplace.

Indiana Workforce Recovery Employer Opioid Strategy sessions were created following a February 2018 study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which attempted to gauge the perspective of Indiana employers on substance abuse disorder.

According to the study, 200,000 employed Hoosiers have substance use disorder. With 40,000 Hoosiers entering treatment every year, nearly 41 percent of them are employed. About 58 percent of those suffering from substance use disorder are employed.

“One of the really interesting things when looking at the labor participation rates, is that nationally, (those not engaged in the labor force) is 32 percent,” said Director of Indiana Workforce Recovery Mike Thibideau, adding that in Indiana, 16 percent are not actively engaged in the labor force, and the rest are seeking employment. “This means that for Indiana employers, a much higher percentage of people engaging in treatment are currently employed.”

Thibideau and other guest speakers attended a program at Ivy Tech Community College which sought to educate Elkhart County employers on how to support their employees as they go through treatment and upon their return.

“It’s really important for us, in measuring these statistics, that we see more employers feel equipped to refer individuals to care,” he said.

During the seminar, Thibideau spoke to employers regarding the mind of the addict, explaining that addiction is developed as a person’s sense of good and bad feelings deteriorates through drug usage. Isolation, trauma, undiagnosed mental illness and lack of social relationships exacerbate the situation.

“All the sudden, when they ingest a substance that produces that artificial response they’ve been looking for, they say, ‘Where has this been my whole life? This is how people should feel.’”

Thibideau, a former addict himself, expounded on the topic through personal experience.

“I hated how I felt when I was sober. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my job or I didn’t care about my family or I didn’t care about any of the things that were burning down around me. What happened was my levels had been reset for what made me care and what made me feel any sense of good.”

As an individual uses substances, receptors in the brain break down, and as a result require more chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine to create important emotional responses.

“Not only does that affect how much alcohol you need, or how much weed you smoke, how much opioids you use, it also affects how much input you need to feel a reward from your job or from holding your daughter,” he said.

The Wellness Council of Indiana conducted a three-month study of employers asking their understanding of substance abuse. Niney-two percent of Indiana employers questioned in the study agreed or somewhat agreed that substance abuse was a problem for the community. The same question, when posed by the National Opinion Research Council out of the University of Chicago and asked of the general population, received a 58 percent agreement.

“This shows that our business leaders in the state of Indiana believe that this is a community problem,” Thibideau said.

However, only 13.3 percent of employers reported substance abuse for their organization.

“When we broke this down further, we could see that there was actually a pretty good disconnect occurring between individuals in upper management and individuals who are in human resource-type roles,” he said. “This shows us that these conversations are occurring at very different levels within organizations.”

He encourages HR managers to work with management to provide solutions.

The study also indicated that employees have been noticeably impacted inside and outside of the workplace with problems varying from overdose, decreased productivity, health care increases, relationship discord, arrests and more through substance abuse of their own or of a loved one.

Thibideau recalled the time he told his mother he was struggling with addiction. 

“As she was beginning to process this, one of the questions that first came up for her was where did she go wrong,” he said. “One big difference that I saw in hindsight was that when my mom’s mother was dealing with cancer, she was able to lean on her workplace as a support mechanism. She was able to talk openly about the struggles she was dealing with and people would check in with her, but when it was me struggling with my disease, she couldn’t even feel comfortable bringing it up in her work environment because of how she thought it would reflect on her as a mother.”

The study also indicated that about 40 percent to 50 percent of employers have plans in place to provide their employees with treatment options, but the majority aren’t adequately dealing with it.

“The workplace is a powerful environment for social interaction,” he said. “My employer is actually a really big part of what helped me to get well and find long-term success.”

Thibideau talked to employers at the event about offering second-chance drug screenings. When an employee fails a drug test, or comes to a manager with concerns about drug usage, he said, the employer should offer assistance and help them gain treatment, offering reasonable accomodations where available, even holding their job if treatment requires long-term inpatient therapy.

He said about 5 percent of drug tests are failed and only 6 percent of employers state they would consider rehiring someone who has failed a previous drug test. He added that failing multiple drug tests and being sent to treatment has proven no more beneficial to the employer than two, but prospective employees should be given a second chance.

“When individuals are entering recovery, their brain is actually able to repair itself very quickly and very well,” Thibideau said. “Part of what will help that occur is reinforcement of good behavior.”

Amy Adolay, lawyer with Krieg Devault of Indianapolis, also attended the seminar to talk about medical leave, and alcohol and drug usage laws under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA protects former drug addicts or alcoholics as well as current alcoholics, she said. It does not protect active users of an illegal drug. The ADA requires that employers provide legal accommodations for those former substance and current alcohol users.

“While you, the employer, may not be legally required to provide accommodations for someone who is actively using, the same accommodations could be applied,” Adolay said.

People who are seeking treatment are also protected by the ADA, she said. 

More information on the topics presented during the seminar is available at www.wellnessindiana.org/recovery.

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