Sandy Says: Unforgettable

Most people suffering from substance abuse are employed. What does that mean for EHS and what does it mean for business?

I started going out to clubs to see live bands when I still was in my teens. I didn't drink or take drugs, so my parents often would drive me to a club to see a band and either would wait for me or would return at a designated hour to pick me up.

I often dressed in my mom's cocktail dresses from the 50s and 60s, wore high heels I bought at thrift stores and traveled in a cloud of Aqua Net hairspray. At a time when ripped tights, neon colors, sunglasses at night and army fatigues were the dress of choice for most concertgoers, let's just say I stood out.

One of the bands I would see was called Jimmy Armstrong and the Pony Boys. I'm not sure how to classify their music. A little new wave, a lot rockabilly, a little punk, a little soul, a little Frank Sinatra – they dressed in zoot suits and had slicked back hair. The lead singer, Jimmy, always seemed a little dangerous, a little unpredictable. They were talented musicians and he had an amazing voice. They were one of my favorites.

Jimmy Armstrong

One summer night, I was sitting outside a club and Jimmy came out and sat down beside me. He handed me a rose and sang “Unforgettable” to me, right there on the street. My 18-year-old self melted. It was one of the most romantic moments of my entire life.

A friend messaged me today to tell me that Jimmy, whom I haven't seen in at least 15 years, had overdosed on heroin and was on life support. This isn't the first time he's overdosed, but it probably is his last.

I don't know if Jimmy ever worked a typical 9-to-5-type job, but the reality is that many substance abusers also are employees.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD), drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually. Some 70 percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past-year users of illegal drugs as those who have had two or fewer jobs.

Drug use, abuse or addiction among employees and their family members can cause expensive problems for business and industry, ranging from lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft and low employee morale, to an increase in health care, legal liabilities and workers' compensation costs.

In addition, according to NCADD, drug abuse can cause problems at work including:

  • After-effects of substance use (withdrawal) affecting job performance.
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration.
  • Illegal activities at work including selling illegal drugs to other employees.
  • Psychological or stress-related effects due to drug use by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects another person's job performance.

Work can be an important place to address drug abuse issues and by establishing or promoting programs such as an EAP and a drug-free workplace program (DFWP), employers can help employees and their families through referrals to community resources and services. Many individuals and families face a host of difficulties closely associated with drug use, and they bring these problems into the workplace, directly or indirectly. By supporting EAP and treatment, employers dramatically can assist in reducing the negative impact of drug use on the workplace, according to NCADD.

Employers with successful EAPs and DFWPs report improvements in morale and productivity and decreases in absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover and theft.

Employers with longstanding programs also report better health status among employees and family members and decreased use of medical benefits by these same groups.

It's too late to get help for Jimmy, but it's not to late to help your employees and their families deal with the devastating repercussions of substance abuse.

Editor's note: Jimmy died as we were going to press.

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