Small businesses offered help in coping with employee drug, alcohol abuse

October 20, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Are employees with drug and alcohol abuse problems affecting your business?

That's a question more small-business owners these days should be asking, said Joyce Brown, coordinator for Howard County's Office of Substance Abuse Impact Services.

"Workers with drug and alcohol abuse problems hurt productivity and quality in the workplace," Ms. Brown said. They are also tardy or absent from work more often than workers on average, and they often run up higher medical bills.

"For a supervisor or a business owner to look the other way when they suspect a substance abuse problem only adds to the denial. It hurts the business and other workers," she said.

A dilemma for many small businesses, especially those that lack human resources and legal departments, is where to get help.

That is why Ms. Brown's office has organized the county's first seminar on drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace.

The seminar, "Building a Safe, Drug-Free Workplace," will be at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow at the county's George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

It is geared to supervisors and owners of small businesses. By yesterday, eight businesses had signed up for the program.

Substance abuse among employees is more prevalent than many business owners suspect, said Shane Kinkennon, spokesman for the Institute for a Drug Free Workplace, a Washington information clearinghouse.

Nationally, it is estimated that 11 percent of the work force (more than 6 million workers) has substance abuse problems, he said.

"Businesses, whether they are large or small, should set up comprehensive programs for dealing with drug and alcohol abuse among employees," Mr. Kinkennon said.

"Just having a drug-testing policy for employees or job &r applicants is unhealthy."

Tomorrow's program will cover seven key areas of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace, including how to set up a comprehensive program.

Other topics include spotting signs and symptoms that can indicate whether a worker has a drug or alcohol abuse problem, the benefits of having a policy spelling out the company's position on drug and alcohol abuse, and setting up employee assistance programs. The program will also outline local resources available to small businesses.

Ms. Brown said her office decided to organize the seminar because it often gets calls from small-business owners looking for help dealing with an employee who has a suspected drug or alcohol abuse problem.

Usually, small-business owners turn to Ms. Brown's office after employees have complained about a problem worker or after the worker has begun to show physical signs of possible drug or alcohol abuse.

One aim of the seminar is educate supervisors and business owners about the issue enough so that they can prevent a situation from developing that far.

"People have this idea that drug abusers are people out on the streets," Ms. Brown said. "But the face of drug abuse in Howard County is very different than what you would see in Baltimore or Washington. Most often it's a person working in a professional or business capacity."

No one is certain what percentage of workers on average in the county has substance abuse problems. The best estimates of its prevalence in the work place comes from state and county-sponsored drug treatment programs.

Maryland's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission estimates that in Howard County 50.9 percent of people receiving professional treatment for substance abuse report holding a full-time job; about 7 percent of people in treatment programs report holding part-time employment.

A key element of the seminar, Ms. Brown said, will be a review of some of the common signs that an employee is abusing drugs or alcohol.

The most common sign is a deterioration in an employee's work quality -- missed details, using other workers to help finish projects the employee usually handles himself, a series of excuses for low quality or low productivity.

Spotting one or several of those signs in a worker isn't proof that a worker has a substance abuse problem. Substance abuse experts say a supervisor should never make his or her own medical diagnosis of a worker as a drug abuser.

What supervisors should do is confront the problem worker with their concerns about work quality, offering specific examples, then request that the employee take responsibility for the problem and seek professional help if necessary.

A worker with a substance abuse problem can have a dramatic effect on other employees' morale, Ms. Brown said, triggering anger and resentment.

The Office of Substance Abuse Impact Services can be reached

at 313-3784.

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