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Ask the Expert

Recovery in the Workplace: Treatment Benefits Both Employees and Employers

Robert White, LCPC, CEAP

Ask the Expert:  Robert White, LCPD, CEAP, Director of Behavioral Health for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Department of Psychiatry

1) I work in a high pressure, high stress industry in which many people de-stress at the end of the day by having a few drinks. Can you recommend other ways to manage stress that might be good for a small group of people who are used to de-stressing together at the end of a long work day?


What you are asking about is so true.  Our culture promotes the idea that we should "work hard and play hard." It’s a way to socialize and unwind from a stressful day.  The problem is that de-stressing with alcohol has a real down side: it can create addiction, distorted thinking, hangovers, drunk driving, fights, hurt feelings, etc.
Some alternatives at the end of a busy day for a small group of people are:

Go to a coffee house and share an espresso, tea or a chai tea.  It can be a great place to unwind, talk and relax with friends. 

Go to a gym and use the time with friends to work out. Things like taking a spinning class, a yoga class, or playing softball, basketball or racquetball are great ways to channel stress into physical fitness. You could start or join a team, ride bikes, take golf lessons or play 9 holes in the evening.

Join or start an interest group: learn the guitar, join a choir, start a writing group, join a book club, join a dance group, start an art or photography group, etc.

Start a cooking club and take turns fixing meals

Check out new and different restaurants.

The main thing to remember is that the most important part of the activity for the group is that it should be fun and encourage talking with each other.  In the end what helps to de-stress is relating to people by talking and sharing what is on your mind. 


2) As a small business owner/employer in the hospitality industry, I know that alcohol and substance use disorders are prevalent. What can I do as an employer to establish a company culture that sets healthy standards for appropriate behavior as it relates to alcohol?


It is important to communicate exactly what your expectations are to your employees.  You may assume that they know what the values of your organization are but they may not.  High functioning organizations find ways to communicate their mission and values on a regular basis.  If one of your values is to have appropriate behavior related to alcohol it will be important to begin by spelling that out in writing.  It should be clear that this is coming from the top.  The employees should hear it and then they have to see it.  They have to see that the boss is going to support this value.
One important message is that if someone has a problem with alcohol there is help available through an EAP.  This will send the message that the employer has a real concern for the employees. 

Begin with a policy statement and then back it up with action.  If people do not observe the policy they can be disciplined, but they should also be referred to the EAP for help.  


3) I work in an industry in which public safety is directly related to staff behavior and skill. One of my coworkers has a drinking and substance use problem that is starting to affect his ability to perform his job properly. We’ve all been picking up the slack to make sure that the job gets done right, but at some point this is going to become unmanageable. What is the best course of action that I can take as a colleague, without getting him in trouble or risking his job?


The first step is to encourage the person to get help voluntarily.  If you have an EAP on the job then start there.  It is a free and confidential service that can help the person find appropriate treatment.  If he or she does not respond then inform the supervisor.  You are not trying to get him or her in trouble.  You are trying to get them to accept help. The supervisor can refer the person to the EAP.  The supervisor can also begin to document the job performance problems.  This will allow them to pursue disciplinary action if necessary.  Most people need a push to get them to go to treatment.
Remember you are not only protecting public safety, you are helping the person get the help they need.

4) As a small business owner/employer who does not have an EAP program, what low cost resources are available to me to educate my employees on the warning signs of drug and alcohol disorders and on the kinds of treatment and recovery that exist? I do not have the funds to contract with an EAP, but I do want to retain my staff and encourage healthy lifestyles.


There are several organizations that have websites that are very helpful on these subjects. I would suggest starting with these:

For signs and symptoms: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence  (NCADD).

For EAP information: Employee Assistance Professionals Association

For related materials:  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services  Administration (SAMHSA).


5) I have a relative just beginning treatment for an alcohol use disorder. Recently I’ve noticed some behaviors like wanting to come home from the in-patient facility much too early, and some mood changes. Are there predictable behavioral patterns that many people in recovery typically go through? What kinds of behaviors should our family anticipate and be prepared to respond to? What literature would you recommend we read to help us be prepared for this early recovery period?


Since alcoholism is a disease that has a significant amount of denial that goes along with it, the family should be prepared for a lot of questioning and minimizing by the person.  It is quite normal for them to try to leave early, minimize the problem and to think that they are "cured" and can get on with their lives.  It would be a mistake to listen to these requests right now.  In fact, the last person you should listen to is the alcoholic or addict.  They have a "brain disease" that has impaired their thinking.  Many times they are not actually "lying"-- they really believe it.  That is just how strong the symptom of denial is.

The best course of action for the family and friends of the person is to maintain contact with the treatment staff.  Go to the family education sessions.  Pick up the book Alcoholics Anonymous or "Under the Influence" or any of the Al-Anon literature.  Go to Al-Anon meetings.  Talk to Al-Anon people, they have been through this before.  They can answer many of your questions from their own experience.  If you need further help, see a counselor that understands addiction treatment. 

And finally, don't give in to the alcoholic.  They need you to be strong and insist that they finish the treatment program that could save their life.


6) I have a 20 year old son who is currently finishing a rehab program.  He is 7 months clean and sober (3 months in Wilderness and 4 months in a follow up transitional program). He wants to go back to college and come back home.  We are looking into Students in Recovery Programs in various colleges. He assures us that he would be able to be at home and go to the local community college as long as he works his steps, has a sponsor and goes to meetings.  We are concerned about the "friends" he has here. What is the likelihood that this would work vs., sending him to another state in a college based recovery program? What steps do we need to take as a family to help him with his recovery?


You are right to be concerned.  He is at a very vulnerable age for relapse.  However, he is now past that magic age of 18.  He can decide what he wants to do in the end.  At this age it is better to negotiate, i.e. "if you do this then we will support you in this way.

The Students in Recovery Program is the safer option, but he may not buy it (no matter what you offer.) He is an adult and needs to participate in the decision.  Tell him what your preference is, state what support you would offer for him to do that.  If he still won't go then negotiate for "success."  What you really want is for him to be healthy and well.
Tell him "Ok, we'll try it your way, but if it doesn't work - if you begin drinking or using drugs then you agree to try it our way." State very clearly what “our way” is.

Let him know how much you want him to succeed and that you will fully support him as long as he is clean and sober, but that if he returns to drinking or drug use then you will have to withdraw that support until he accepts the treatment or alternative program that you are recommending.  Always let him know how much you love him and want him to do well.  This is not a power struggle with him.  This is his family caring for him and wanting him to do well.

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