To help employees with substance abuse problems, try to foster a stigma-free workplace environment

How can employers help employees who may have substance abuse problems? A health promotions specialist says it's the same as any other wellness program.

'It's in a workplace's best interest to invest in having healthy employees'

Gillian Stagar said she'd like to see communities discuss substance abuse as a disorder, rather than a social failing. (Shutterstock / Roman Samborskyi)

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) is holding a luncheon today to help promote wellness in the workplace — but the focus is a little different than traditional wellness efforts.

Gillian Stager, a WECHU health promotions specialist, is set to speak about the Windsor-Essex Community Opioid and Substance Strategy, to identify ways that workplaces can help employees living with substance abuse.

Stager — whose partner's nephew died of an overdose on Easter Weekend — said she's been working on the substance abuse strategy for the Windsor Essex County Health Unit since its inception in 2017.

"Given the prevalence of the opioid crisis in the country, we wanted to give people some information about how we got here and what's happening locally, as well as the role the workplace can play in being part of the community response," said Stager.

According to Stager, the same strategies workplaces use to encourage general health and wellness can be used to address substance abuse concerns:

  • Make sure you have a "robust" usage policy in place.
  • Educate employees about potential risks associated with opiate use.
  • Foster a stigma-free environment about substance use.
  • Help employees that have identified substance use problems find places where they can receive support.
  • Make sure supervisors are trained to identify opiate use disorders in employees.

"You want to change the culture so that substance abuse issues are actually perceived as a health issue so people feel safe to come forward to address their issues with the [employee assistance program]," said Stager.

"And also so that managers are able to have informed conversations with their [employees] if needed."

Changing the conversation around substance abuse

Stager said she hopes to change the conversation surrounding substance abuse, so that it's considered a disorder, rather than a social failing.

She also recommended workplaces encourage naloxone training.

"We're hoping some workplaces will take on providing naloxone training to either their health and safety reps or their management team," said Stager.

Beth Anne Ternovan is the manager of the counselling program and employee assistance program at Family Services Windsor-Essex.

She said that some of her staff are trained to administer naloxone, and that her organization provided training to the rest of her staff "in the event they should ever have to use it."

Ternovan added that some of her staff are out "on the street dealing with people firsthand on a daily basis ... ergo, the importance of that training."

According to Stager, employers who fail to take employee substance abuse seriously shouldn't just be worried about employees harming themselves.

Stager said substance abuse costs the economy $39 billion every year.

"Forty per cent of that big number is made up of lost productivity," she said. "So that would be people that are on short-term disability because of absenteeism related to their substance use, or it could be long-term disability where substance use has completely impacted their ability to work or even premature death."

Stager said it's often in a workplace's best interest "from an economic standpoint, to invest in having healthy employees."

According to preliminary Public Health Ontario data, 48 people in Windsor-Essex died of opioid-related deaths in 2018 — the majority of whom were men who died indoors alone.


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