The Employer’s Guide to Dealing with Substance Abuse

On the morning of the second event in the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s speaker series on the opioid epidemic, there was good news on the front page of the Buffalo News: In 2018, overdose deaths due to opioid use had fallen to a four-year low in Erie County.

While Howard K. Hitzel, Psy.D, president and CEO of BestSelf Behavioral Health, pointed to that good news in his opening remarks, he also cautioned that there is still a lot of work to do in addressing the opioid crisis—and that means the role of local employers in dealing with the issue is more important than ever.

Dr. Hitzel joined Erin Torcello, Esq., an employment and labor attorney with the law firm of Bond Schoeneck & King, and Richard Vienne, O.D., vice president and chief medical officer of Univera Healthcare, as featured speakers at the event designed to further inform and update employers on the opioid crisis in our region.

From left, Dr. Howard K. Hitzel, president and CEO of BestSelf Behavioral Health; Erin Torcello, Esq., employment and labor attorney with Bond Schoeneck & King; and Richard Vienne, vice president and chief medical officer of Univera Healthcare.

Advice for helping employees recover

Dr. Hitzel said the focus for employers should be on recovery.

“The employer’s role includes helping employees who have a substance use disorder—or have a family member with an addiction—to be aware of resources available and to find fast access to treatment, including medically assisted treatment,” Dr. Hitzel said. “Every company, large or small, will encounter the epidemic is some way among its workforce, so understanding the treatment for recovery is critical.”

Dr. Hitzel said the warning signs of addiction include:

  • More use of sick time
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased health care costs
  • Mood and behavioral changes
  • Arriving late and leaving early
  • Relationship problems
  • Changes in appearance, i.e. lack of personal hygiene and grooming

Dr. Hitzel explained that if employers suspect that an employee is suffering from addiction, they should approach the person as a concerned manager or supervisor, listen carefully to their concerns, and indicate a willingness to help them recover.

He then shared a brief video featuring some employees at BestSelf who are in recovery themselves. They shared their perspectives on how employers can help employees to recover. Among their advice:

  • Listen. Don’t jump to conclusions if an employee in recovery is late one day.
  • Don’t tiptoe around the fact the employee is in recovery. Treat them like any other employee.
  • See through the myths and misconceptions about those in recovery. They are as reliable, hard-working, and trustworthy as any employee.
  • Understand that the employee is working hard on recovery and that their job is an important factor in getting better every day.
  • If the employee is receiving medically assisted treatment, such as methadone, know that they can still perform their job.
  • Recovery is possible and more than likely, the employee is humbled and grateful for the opportunity to recover while working for your company.

5 best practices for employers

Ms. Torcello noted that laws are typically behind the times when it comes to labor and employment and this is especially true on substance abuse issues. However, she also said that changes can occur quickly, so employers need to stay current on their rights and responsibilities.

Torcello referred to her recent blog post in which she offered employers five best practices for dealing with substance abuse in the workplace. Those best practices include:

  • Having a clear and comprehensive substance abuse policy that could include a drug testing provision
  • Training managers and supervisors to spot warning signs of illegal drug use and how to take appropriate action
  • Imposing and enforcing performance standards for all employees
  • Providing reasonable accommodations for employees in recovery as needed
  • Understanding regulations on discharging employees based on current use of illegal drugs

Ms. Torcello said the legal obligations of employers are constantly evolving.

“The issues surrounding substance abuse in the workplace are often complex and difficult to navigate,” she said. “Still, employers need to understand what can and cannot be done when it comes to an employee dealing with substance use disorder—an experienced labor and employment lawyer can help in that regard.”

How employers can be part of the solution

Dr. Vienne said that a significant factor in the start of the opioid epidemic was the 2001 Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation that established standards for assessment and treatment of pain in patients. The standards listed pain as a vital sign, like blood pressure, and called for hospitals to be graded on how they addressed pain. That led to the over-prescription of opioids and an overwhelming increase in opioid addiction.

Dr. Vienne emphasized that while the opioid epidemic is indeed a human issue, pain is a symptom—not a vital sign. He said personalizing pain management will help physicians avoid overprescribing, stemming addiction to painkillers. He said employers should approach opioid addiction in employees with sensitivity as a human issue and focus on helping the person recover.

“As we know, addiction can happen to anyone,” he said. “Mistakes were made that got us to the point of an epidemic. Progress is now being made, as noted in today’s headline—and employers must continue to be part of the solution.”

Dr. Vienne recommended that employers:

  • Ensure that employees are aware and have access to resources such as opioid addiction hotlines or 24/7 information by phone
  • Establish an EAP program and communicate its availability on a regular basis
  • Mobilize assistance resources—like literature and handouts—and make them part of the work environment and part of other employee communications

Additional resources

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership would like to thank our speakers for their participation and leadership in this important series of presentations.

“Forums such as this event are critical to involving employers in addressing the opioid epidemic in our community,” Dr. Hitzel said. “Our goal is to keep the conversation going and judging from the many people in attendance today, the business community recognizes its role.”

Partnership Resources
6 ways employers can help combat the opioid epidemic
5 best practices employers can use to navigate substance abuse issues in the workplace
Download: About the Opioid Epidemic in Our Community (PDF)

24/7 Addiction Hotline: (716) 831-7007
Get immediate help, education, information, referrals, and assistance finding treatment.

Erie County Resources
Learn more about the Opioid Task Force
Get information about opioids
Attend training and related events

National Task Force Resources
City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic

Thank You to Our Presenting Sponsors