Four decades working in the construction industry has solidified Jim Johnson’s opinion when it comes to substance abuse among his employees.
“I’ve seen it at all job-site levels,” said Johnson, president and CEO of GE Johnson Construction Co. “Drinking was more what I could see because I obviously wasn’t aware, and still am not very skilled [at recognizing drug use].
“I think as we saw the demand for more labor in a very tight market, [substance abuse] really [accelerated],” he added.
A national study conducted by Detox.net, an online provider of drug detox financial information and withdrawal guides, broke down data from last year’s National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health and found recurring patterns in certain U.S. industries.
The construction industry consistently ranked near the top of the pack across the board, with 16.07 percent of all workers having been classified with a substance abuse disorder — second only to the accommodations and food services trade, which reported 17 percent.
Additionally, more than 60 percent admitted to using cannabis — above the national average and the survey’s highest reported usage.
The survey found that across all industries, 15.82 percent of all employees have abused pain relievers, and 22.63 percent of construction employees admit to abusing pain relieving drugs for non-medical use.
“The field of construction is physically and strenuously demanding of workers, which is a possible consideration with these statistics, as employees might seek substances to help them perform longer hours and aid in difficult tasks,” according to the Detox.net study’s findings.
FACE IT TOGETHER
Johnson knows the tremendous physical demands and long hours can often serve as an impetus for employees already predisposed to substance use. However, he firmly believes no industry is immune from addiction-related issues — and it is for that reason that he believes business owners play a critical role in addressing substance abuse.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate against economic or industry lines,” Johnson said. “We do pre-hire drug testing, and we also do random and post-accident testing, so we go a long ways to keep drugs out of the workplace.
“But we were still honest with ourselves enough to say, ‘Yeah, this is a big enough problem. We’re not immune.’”
Much of the national conversation around substance abuse has focused on the opioid epidemic, with the Department of Health and Human Services declaring a public health emergency in 2017 after opioid overdose deaths exceeded 42,000 in 2016 — more than any previous year on record, according to the HHS website.
It has long been common practice for GE Johnson employees to keep an eye out for opioid abuse in the workplace, Johnson said. But he still felt the company needed to broaden its approach.
“We manage our workmen’s compensation program very closely anyways. You try to coach people through it if they’re getting painkillers for that bruised shoulder,” Johnson said. “But it’s really more society that’s struggling with this. We decided to step forward and try to at least do something for our employees and their families.
“We looked ourselves in the eye and said, ‘We’re fooling ourselves if this doesn’t exist inside our company,’” Johnson said.
That line of thinking led, in December, to the company’s partnership with the Denver nonprofit Face It TOGETHER to provide a coaching program for employees and their loved ones who are fighting addiction, making it the first company in Colorado to do so.
“We found a model that we felt very comfortable with, and was very supportive and fit our culture very well,” Johnson said. “We’re still young in the process. We rolled it out at the first part of this year.”
FIT’s services are available to GE Johnson employees and their family members as part of its health benefits program, Johnson said. FIT provides employees access to peer counseling and navigation services. Coaching sessions are scheduled once a week, either at FIT’s office in Denver or via an app, video or phone, and coaches offer emotional support and help develop strategies for behavior change and practical skills to manage the disease. They also help address barriers to recovery and provide extra support in the event of a setback.
Coaches offer support for employees who have a family member struggling with addiction, aiding in establishing healthy boundaries, improving communication, modeling and encouraging change, and providing motivation while strengthening the employee’s own well-being.
The organization also has developed what it calls a Recovery Capital Index, which tracks symptoms and issues covering emotional, mental and physical health. The index, which is scored on a scale of 1 to 100, is administered at the beginning of coaching and repeated every 30 days. Members are asked questions such as “Are you more hopeful?” “Is your employment more stable?” and “Are things better at home?” as well as whether they have used drugs or alcohol since the last session.
“All their peer counselors are recovering addicts, and it’s not just, ‘Hey, stop drinking’ — they have developed this recovery index that really helps the employee or family member begin to monitor various points of their lives,” Johnson said. “They also help you navigate what you can run into on insurance.”
FIT is not a treatment provider, but rather a counseling and navigation service, Johnson said.
“They can say, ‘Here are the centers we work with who we believe are focused on these outcomes,’ so hopefully that person can get to the right place if that’s the treatment they need. They provide counseling with family members as well,” Johnson said. “[FIT is] a resource that can help address the challenges as well as navigate the course to recovery, and they issue results along with that as well.”
HOW EMPLOYERS CAN HELP
Many companies have put employee assistance programs in place that help with personal or work-related problems that may impact their job performance, mental health and emotional well-being.
While useful, these programs cannot replicate the services offered by FIT, Johnson said.
“FIT’s sole purpose and practice is addiction, while EAPs are a little more general and not as specific,” Johnson said. “My assumption would be that for straight-up substance abuse, [EAPs] are not nearly as skilled or as helpful as FIT.
“I would love to see more industries embrace this,” Johnson said of FIT. “It would be just like turbo-charging your EAP.”
Cathy Plush, executive director of Springs Recovery Connection on West Colorado Avenue, agreed with Johnson that the recovery process for addicts needed to move into the workplace.
“We would like to have a peer in every organization — somebody in recovery who is working at that company, but is also a trained coach — so that whenever an employee in that business needs help, they would know who to go to and it’s not like you’d be going to your boss,” Plush said. “Then you can find a pathway to recovery through that person.
“We’re not there yet, but as we get more and more people in our community understanding what addiction does and doesn’t look like, we can help people in a more broad way.”
Such initiatives have monetary value as well. Employers bear the costs of addiction in terms of increased health care costs, turnover, absenteeism, low productivity and increased risk of injury.
“One in three households are affected either directly or indirectly by addiction. … I don’t know what the figures are of how much it costs, but it’s huge,” Plush said. “Just getting one employee well could save thousands of dollars.
“I think it’s so necessary to try to get people help, because a lot of times people end up losing everything,” Plush added. “Getting people help while they’re still employed is ideal.”