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ICAS – Working Better Together

1817 days ago
Getting help when you’re hooked

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Substance abuse within the workplace is on the increase.          But many employers still underestimate the far reaching implications employee addiction can have on a company’s bottom line. By Ilze Hugo

Although relatively few studies have focused on the problem with-in the workplace, substance abuse among the general population in South Africa has increased drastically over the past decade, says Nadine Harker Burnhams, a senior scientist with the Medical Research Council’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit. According to Dr Mike McCann, co-author of Alcohol, Drugs and Employment, South Africa was ranked fourth for harmful drinking in a study of 20 African countries, while 25 to 30 percent of admissions to hospitals are alcohol related.

Reduced productivity
The effects of addiction in the workplace can be devastating, and yet companies remain ambivalent about addressing the problem. A Department of Trade and Industry economic report estimates that South Africa loses R300 million a year through alcohol-related absenteeism. Based on international experience, Harker-Burnams believes that the economic costs associated with alcohol abuse could be as high as 1.6% of the country’s gross domestic product, or about R38 billion. Substance abuse by employees ‘can result in decreased productivity, work errors, wasted materials, tardiness and absenteeism, all translating into substantial productivity losses each year,’ she says.

One extreme example of the effects of substance abuse is the collapse of Britain’s oldest merchant bank, Barings. The infamous rogue trader Nick Leeson admits in his  autobiogra-phy that alcohol and cocaine addictions were major contributing factors in his downfall.

Preventing substance abuse
Employers have a legal obligation to address addiction in the workplace, says Harker-Burnams. Employers are required ‘to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of all workers and any other people who may be affected by the undertakings of the employer’. The consensus is that long-term, comprehensive, evidence-based prevention practices and treatment programmes should be in place. They should be based on substance-abuse policies that clearly outline treatment opportunities (through employee assistance programmes) and, if relevant to the company, clear drug-testing protocols. Harker-Burnams also suggests that companies adopt prevention programmes that encourage help-seeking behaviours, enhance the work climate and enable supervisors to respond to and deal with troubled employees. These programmes should focus on the majority of employees who ‘aren’t yet dependent, but already partake in harmful drinking or drug-use practices’.

A tried-and-tested policy that is well communicated to employees is essential, says Jonathan Roper, clinical and operations director at ICAS, one of the world’s leading providers of employee assistance and wellness programmes. The policy must be in line with legislation, clearly define the responsibilities of employers and employees, and include testing criteria, treatment options in support of the employee, and non-compliance measures. He adds, ‘If there is an active union within the company, they need to incorporate the union into the development of that policy as well’.

Overcoming addiction
Employers must have an agreed procedure in place before testing employees, warns Tertius Cronje, director of corporate services at the South African National Council on Alcohol-ism and Drug Dependence (SANCA). ‘Don’t just barge in with testing’, he advises. ‘Get an agreement with the unions first.’ He also cautions against companies doing the testing themselves, as a bias may creep in and there’s ‘a real danger of false positives if the person doing the testing isn’t knowledgeable enough’. He cites examples of false positives resulting from some forms of medication (like Myprodol in the case of heroin testing) and even certain foods.

Before commencing any treatment, an effective initial assessment is important. The assessment provides an idea of the severity of the problem and informs the type of treatment, says Cronje. Depending on whether it is abuse, irresponsible use or dependency, treatment can involve outpatient treatment (where the employee comes in once every week or two weeks for a counselling session), or detox at a private clinic followed by treatment or in-patient treatment (three to four weeks of institutionalised care). Rehabilitation should be the primary aim, says McCann: ‘The “taking care” approach should be encouraged, and long-term rehabilitation is more cost-effective. Dismissal should be the ultimate sanction and the last resort.

Addiction in South Africa
The most prevalent addiction problem in South Africa remains alcohol, says McCann. Although only 45% of the population drink it, ‘South Africa has one of the highest consumption ratios in the world,’ he states. The three most common substance addictions in South Africa, according to Cronje, are alcohol, tik and dagga. Roper agrees that alcohol and dagga are most prevalent, but points out that the substance used depends largely on ‘the geographic location of the user, socio-economic status, age, gender, and even the industry in which the user works’. The ICAS EWP data shows that methamphetamines such as tik and khat are prevalent in the Western Cape, while provinces like Gauteng have a higher percentage usage of cocaine, heroin, and recreational drugs like ecstasy.

Need help?
For advice on setting up a substance abuse assistance programme within your company, contact SANCA at www.sancanational.org.za or ICAS at www.icas.co.za

♦ End

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