“Did you see how much beer that bloke drank at the office party without getting drunk? Wish I could do that.” It is tempting in the Australian culture to admire people who are able to down multiple beers and still appear to be unaffected. Drinking is endemic in society, and it is not always possible to judge the effects that alcohol or drugs are having on each person. Someone can be using illicit drugs and not have yet reached the point at which physical symptoms become noticeable. There may be behavioural symptoms, but not always. Until a person reaches a point of dependence, and thus desperation, it is a myth to believe drug and alcohol abuse will be obvious in everyone. That is just one myth, and one reason why random testing for drugs and alcohol is so important.
Building a Support System
The myths do not stop with the symptoms of drug and alcohol use. They also abound in the area of addiction recovery. Workers who agree to participate in an Employee Assistance Plan or to get addiction counselling will return to work at some point. Subscribing to the myths about recovery can harm the workers chances of resuming a substance-free, productive life. Myths about addiction recovery develop because people do not always take the time to study the latest health research, or they listen to people who really are not sure what they are talking about.
Employers should be aware of the typical myths about alcohol and drug addiction recovery for two reasons. First, it helps the employer develop a plan that supports the returning worker’s success in staying away from substances. Second, dismantling the myths in employee training and development sessions builds effective peer support. Though the privacy of workers should always be protected, it is difficult for a worker who “disappears” for a period of time to keep it as secret that he or she had to seek addiction treatment.
A myth that should be dispelled is that people who crave drugs and alcohol have no willpower. The body of scientific research supports the fact that illicit drugs and persistent use of alcohol impacts brain chemistry. Addiction is caused by a mixture of emotional, physical, and psychological factors. A recovered worker returning to a place of employment should not be told he or she has no willpower or was just being weak. It shows a true lack of knowledge about addiction.
Another myth is that a relapse means the person will become an addict once again. The returning worker may relapse, but it is how the relapse is managed that really matters. If the person is able to recall the misery of addiction and can immediately return to recovery, the one relapse is not necessarily devastating. However, the statistics on the chances of relapse occurring are high enough to lead employers to place returning workers in non-safety sensitive positions for a period of time.
Forever “On Alert”
True addiction can be considered a chronic illness. A person who has recovered is now fully aware of their propensity to become addicted due to genetics, brain chemistry changes, or other reasons. Recovery must be managed over a lifetime, just like any other chronic health condition.1 It is a myth to believe the worker is recovered and that is the end of the story. People serious about recovery do return to work, assume their prior positions, and are productive the rest of their lives. It is just important to recognise they are always “on alert”.
Yet another myth is that withdrawal symptoms automatically mean a person is addicted. Like the bloke who drinks too much and yet shows no outward indications of drunkenness, a person withdrawing from cocaine may not show observable signs of withdrawal. Employers are often surprised by random drug test results because the employee testing positive did not show symptoms of use or withdrawal.
As for people who drink heavily and seem fine, the fact is they have been affected even if there are no visible signs. Each person reacts in a different way to alcohol, and reactions depend on many factors. These include the type of drink and personal characteristics. Weight, gender, and age influence alcohol affects. The state of mind has an impact also.2 The bloke at the work party may be hyper-sensitive about his behaviour in front of co-workers and manages to control alcohol-induced actions. When that person cannot pass a breathalyser test during a work shift, no one is really surprised because of how well the person is able to control reactions. Of course, anyone who continues drinking without interruption will eventually succumb and show signs of being drunk. This simply supports the critical need for random alcohol testing in the workplace.
Buying into the myths about drug and alcohol addiction and recovery can harm the health and safety of the workplace. CMM Technology (cmm.com.au) has a host of products designed to detect drugs and alcohol. What happens after detection depends on the employer’s full understanding of the long-term impacts of substance abuse, including after the employee returns to work upon completing treatment.
1 Exploding Drug Myths. (2007, March 15). Retrieved from Addiction Science Research and Education Center, University of Texas: http://bit.ly/JmzBYD
2 Alcohol & other drugs services in Victoria – Facts and Myths. (2013, February 5). Retrieved from Department of Health, Victoria, Australia: http://bit.ly/1e7zme1