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Addiction and substance misuse pose a safety risk at work. A personal story.

by Leslie Hanson

“Your mom isn’t answering the phone.  I’m worried about her.  Can you check on her?”  Immediately following this text, my cell phone rang with a familiar phone number. It was my mother’s cousin, Laurie. I knew why she was calling.  Cousin Laurie spoke with my mother daily and routinely called me when she could not be reached.  

Over the years, I came to address these calls with diminished urgency as experience taught me my mother was either ignoring the calls or incapacitated by her addiction to opioids. Cousin Laurie had designated herself as my mother’s keeper and assuaged her own fear of my mother dying by incessantly placing the burden of constant welfare checks upon me.  I had become desensitized after finding my mother in an overdosed stupor literally dozens of times.  As I had done so many times before, I let myself into her apartment, calling her name. 

After receiving no response, I made my way to her bedroom to find her unconscious.  Her breathing was agonal-episodic apnea followed by loud gasps for air.  Finding any other person in this state would result in panic and the immediate activation of 9-1-1.  Finding my mother like this resulted in anger and disgust… and absolute irritation.  After making sure no appliances or faucets were left on (a common occurrence), I left.  As usual, I would call her that evening and she would act like everything was fine, having no recollection of my being there.  

You see, I was well versed in chaos, drama, fire departments breaching front doors, law enforcement questions, ambulance rides, ER doctors, and begging my mother to go to detox and rehab.  Sadly, the typical outcome from ER visits was more prescriptions for narcotics and a stack of referrals to “specialists”, also known as pain management doctors.  There was no beneficial action to take at this point. Checking on her was little more than making sure she was alive. I knew there was a chance, a high probability in fact, that one day she would not wake.  

This is an ugly, painful, and deeply personal story and by now, you are likely wondering why I am sharing it.  I promise this is a safety message you can apply at home and at work.  Let me explain. 

My mother was addicted for as long as I can remember

I am told, and believe, it began when she was given narcotic painkillers at fifteen years old. She broke both of her feet jumping out of her bedroom window to sneak out with….Cousin Laurie.   My mother’s addiction had accelerations and decelerations over the years with decelerations usually occurring when the heat was on her at home or at work.  Simply stated, when people started expressing concerns and threatening action, she would slow down for a season. 

She never stopped using.  She was very likable.  She was a charming, charismatic, convincing, manipulative liar who could successfully sell a “nothing to see here” story.  Denial is an amazing creature. Everyone wanted to believe she was clean and so they did.

My mother demonstrated the classic warning signs of drug abuse in the workplace for decades. She worked full-time, using daily, for almost thirty years. Twenty-two of those years were with one employer.  She was involved in over a dozen traffic accidents resulting in the total loss of several vehicles.

She was frequently, but not always, cited

She had several injuries in the workplace resulting in surgeries and lost time.  She was chronically absent, particularly after payday and after a medical appointment where she was given narcotic prescriptions.  She had unreliable performance, frequent safety violations, disagreements with colleagues, traffic accidents, chronic financial troubles, and several disciplinary actions-mainly for chronic absenteeism.  

Family, friends, and coworkers chose to either deny, excuse, or overlook it because there was no way they missed it, a fact several of them have acknowledged.  Granted, these signs can be indicative of other issues. However, when we observe these behaviors in our family, friends, and colleagues, regardless of the underlying cause, they should be addressed. Substance use and abuse in the workplace creates hazards that extend beyond the person using.  It creates the potential for conditions that can lead to hazards for others. When you voice a concern about a colleague, you may save a life.

I am not assigning blame as her issues were hers to own 

Nonetheless, I often wonder if my mother’s life would have turned out differently had her employers held her accountable since her family struggled to do so.  If her colleagues and leaders had either forced her into treatment or forced her to live with the consequences of job loss earlier in her life, would she have received the gift of recovery and learned to live free of addiction?  After she was able to receive disability payments (ostensibly for the disease of addiction) and stopped working, there were no more decelerations. 

The momentum of the disease of addiction was that of a boulder tumbling down a mountainside, unrestrained acceleration; and the crash at the bottom was destructive. Addiction came at a high price for my mother.  She lost her health, her meager savings, her home, her relationships, her self-respect, her hope, and ultimately, her life.  

Indeed, the day came when she did not wake. She died lonely.  She died alone.  She left a family who loved her despite her behavior and choices.

This is not only my story.  It is our story.  In the decades since my mother’s departure from the company, things have changed. Sadly, as a society, we are no longer blind to drug use and addiction.  As a company, we now have anonymous reporting programs and consistent “see something, say something” messaging that effectively empowers employees to report.

Here are some facts about substance abuse that may surprise you:

  • Seventy percent of people with a substance misuse issue maintain full-time employment. I doubt this is the image your mind conjures when you hear the word “addict.”
  • Sixteen percent of emergency room patients with work related injuries have alcohol in their system.  This only represents the few injuries that land in an emergency room. Most do not.
  • A survey conducted by the National Safety Council concluded 75% of employers report that opioid abuse has impacted their workplace. 
  • Over one fourth of us have someone in our immediate family who is suffering with substance misuse or addiction.
  • In 2020, overdose deaths increased by 30%.
  • Over the last two years in the United States, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 60K people aged 18-50 years. In 2021 alone, overdoses claimed the lives of 97K people, most between the ages of 15 and 64 years. Overdose is now being called the epidemic within the pandemic.

*Sources: NIH, CDC, National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, National Safety Council

Research demonstrates the devastating impacts COVID-19 have had on mental health in our society.  Untreated, mental illnesses frequently evolve into substance use, misuse, and addiction as people look to self-medicate and like opioid abuse, mental illness is on the rise.  Prior to the pandemic, the United States was experiencing and opioid epidemic.  This epidemic has grown unabated in the last two years and is having catastrophic effects on our nation.  You can make a difference:

  • If you observe behaviors of concern in the workplace, say something
    • All employees, but especially leaders, should be familiar with their company’s drug and alcohol plans as well as its medical evaluation procedures
    • Sharing concerns with your leader, HR, or the Ethics and Compliance line are the best courses of action to assure privacy is respected
  • Become knowledgeable of your company’s employee assistance program and medical coverage for mental health services
  • If you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, you probably do.  Get help everywhere you can find it. Some places to start:
    • Medical professionals trusted friends, and family
    • Al-Anon (as well as Families Anonymous) is an excellent resource for those who love someone who had an addiction
  • If you are prescribed a controlled medication:
    • Consider asking your doctor about alternatives
    • Keep out of reach of children, teens, and visitors to your home. 
      • Use a safe to keep these medications out of the wrong hands
  • If your child is prescribed a controlled medication:
    • Ask the provider for an alternative.  For many teens, the first foray into the world of opioids stems from the prescription they receive for a wisdom tooth removal.  (oxycodone)
  • Know the warning signs of substance abuse in the workplace, in teens, and in general, and take them seriously
  • Get involved
    • Demand better control of “controlled” substances
    • Demand adequate funding for mental health and addiction recovery programs

Don’t be afraid of being wrong when acting in good faith.  My family has been ravaged by addiction.  If you help a colleague, you can change the trajectory of an entire family and its generational legacy.

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