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Addiction professionals urge employers to work with people in recovery

Human Resources
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With the workforce small and the number of people in recovery on the rise, people who treat and coach substance abusers say the time has come for hiring managers to see people in recovery as an opportunity and not a threat.

There is fear on both sides, says Marc Burrows, program manager for Challenges Inc., an addiction outreach service. Employers are worried about liability and employees “are terrified” of being found out, he said.

“In most cases, people in recovery are too scared to inform their employer of their addiction. Rightfully so, due to the stigma and discrimination that often exists,” Burrows said. “People in recovery might think that their employer would see them as a liability.”

But according Rich Jones of FAVOR Greenville, it may be at least as risky to hire someone with no apparent history of drug abuse and recovery.

A percentage of your workforce already has a substance dependency, said Jones, CEO of FAVOR, which calls itself the community’s welcome center to recovery. FAVOR — Faces and Voices of Recovery — works with individuals struggling with addiction, as well as their families and, increasingly, employers.

According to FAVOR, 70% of people struggling with substance use are employed full time and 46% of Americans have a relationship with someone who has struggled with addiction in the last year.

In short, Jones said, chances are employers with a sizable workforce are already employing people somewhere on the spectrum between drug abuse and active recovery.

“The honest-to-God truth is they (employers) have people working with them right now that are more risky than the recovering person,” he said. “If you look at it like that you would rather have someone in recovery who’s dealing with it rather than someone in a cat-and-mouse situation trying to get away with it.”

Dependency and recovery — and the fear of relapse — make for a difficult conversation at work, Burrows said, and it is important for employers to remember that a person’s addiction status is medical information that workers are not obligated to share.

That said, “I think the best thing a worker can do to reassure their employer is to be honest about their situation once established as an employee,” he said. “In most cases it would probably be beneficial for both parties to communicate about this.”

Most people who develop a drug dependency struggle with relapse and recovery, especially in the early going, according to Burrows. Specialists in the treatment industry recognize various stages of dependency and recovery but most of them agree that “active recovery” is a stage that finds individuals less likely to relapse and more likely to be living a disciplined life — the kind of discipline that makes for a good employee, he said.

According to Jones, the rise in illicit opioid use may have created more understanding about addiction for the general public, but the problems isn’t going away anytime soon so employers need to learn to work within the challenge of the crisis.

Jones is working on a new project called YouTurn.net that is designed, in part, to assist employers who want to help employees struggling with addiction or headed in that direction.

“There is a way to approach the issues so that there’s a win-win,” Jones said. “They don’t always have to rush off to rehab and they don’t have to get fired. A lot of these folks are salvageable, and we all know replacing someone costs a lot of money.”

Employers of doctors and nurses have a long track record of salvaging employees through the S.C. Recovering Professional Program. One tool the program uses is random drug testing through RecoveryTrek, founded 20 years ago by Kirk Cizerle as a way for employees to demonstrate accountability.

Most enter an agreement with RecoveryTrek because it’s the only way to hold on to the license, but Cizerle said more participants are choosing to stick with RecoveryTrek after the mandate ends because those clients want to demonstrate to spouses, family or employers that they are clean. He is exploring ways to offer random drug testing services outside the medical profession so that industries such as manufacturing can use it as a tool.

Cizerle said about 80% of people in recovery for the first time relapse. But professionals using programs like RecoveryTrek do much better. “They have an 80% success rate. So they flip the numbers because they know true recovery never ends. Continuing care is really where you recover. And when they’re in true recovery their loyalty and appreciation will make them as good or better as anyone else you can hire.”

Jones said the state of the American workforce, especially in this time of low unemployment, depends in part on employers and employees finding a way to deal with addiction and recovery as long as the opioid crisis looms.

“It’s never been as dangerous as it is right now,” he said. “I believe opioid deaths are going to add up to an overall different attitude about recovery — either that or we aren’t going to make it through. Regardless of how you feel about addiction, you will not have a workforce if you deal with it the
old way.”

Reach Ross Norton at 864-720-1222.

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