Companies help users kick the habit

Edward L. Johnson, director of the employee assistance program (EAP) at Firestone Tire Company in Akron, Ohio, sums up the attitude that most employers have had toward drug use and alcoholism:

"We'll continue to keep you on the job so long as you successfully conceal your alcoholism or drug problem. When you can no longer hide it from us, then we'll discipline you or fire you."

Not many companies can afford that stand anymore. Absenteeism, increased accidents, insubordination, and decreased productivity are a few of the symptoms of a drug and alcohol problem.

A growing number of companies are responding by instituting employee assistance programs, which help the employee face his or her problem and direct them to additional help, usually in the community. There are an estimated 4,000 EAPs instituted in companies throughout the country.

John McVernon of the National Association on Drug Abuse Problems, a New York City-based coalition of business and union officials, says that a well-implemented EAP can preserve between 67 and 70 percent of the jobs of troubled employees. Some EAP directors claim 80 percent success. Where there is no EAP, but supervisors are trained to spot and support troubled workers, 50 percent of the workers with problems are retained, estimates Mr. McVernon.

"There is a nationwide trend to establish programs, and a thrust for unions and employers to work together," he says.

McDonnell-douglas in St. Louis, Mo., has had a program to help employees with alcohol and drug abuse for nearly 10 years. Don Sparks, director of the program , says they have treated around 5,000 employees and their family members since its inception.

"As the company looked at the problem, we realized there would be a cost savings andm humanistic value in a program such as this," he says.

The EAP at Firestone in Akron has dealt with 4,300 employees and their dependents during the past seven years. Mr. Johnson says he has had an 80 percent success rate in rehabilitating the workers. Most of the rest either quit or are fired.

A typical EAP works confidentially with the worker, and family members are often included in the coverage. Employees bring themselves into the programs or are referred by a job supervisor or family member. They are directed to professional help such as physicians, counselors, or clergy. Sometimes employees are sent to hospitals for "detoxification." Some companies urge employees to join groups such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous.

"We tell the workers that professionals can get us well, but they can't maintain us," Mr. Johnson says. "We certainly encourage them to go back to the church of their choice.We use anything and everything that will work. We give them the tools, but they've got to do it themselves. It's shape up or ship out."

Mr. Johnson is qualified to talk about addictions because he says he once was a "PHD" himself -- a "poor helpless drunk."

"I was a World War II hero, but at 21 I was the town drunk," he says. "It's pretty hard for someone with a problem to cop out on me. I have been through it." He credits his freedom from his addiction to involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous and his renewed faith in "a power greater than oneself."

Maynard Rosen of the St. Louis Area National Council on Alcoholism adds, "We attempt to treat the mind in addition to the physical. The employees need to have a change in thinking and attitude. We break down the denial of the problem and get them to face reality."

The National Association of Drug Abuse Problems (NADAP) in New York, an alliance of union and business officials, warns employers not to play "mommy and daddy."

NADAP tells employees to react to drug problems the same way they would handle alcoholism on the job.

"Be direct, and make sure it is exclusively an issue of job performance," says Mr. McVernon.

Still, many companies don't even face the problem until something dramatic happens, says Mr. Rosen. Other firms recognize there is a problem, but do not want to install an EAP because of the adverse publicity it might cause.

"There is a hospital that shies away from the program because they are afraid the public will think the hospital is admitting the staff cannot perform to capacity," says one EAP expert. "Chances are slim that the public will find out there is a problem, but if they do, then the hospital could be hit for malpractice. With the program, the administration could at least say they have recognized the problem and are doing something about it."

Mr. Rosen thinks the combat against drugs in the workplace is just beginning.

"There are not that many programs going," he says. "There are some major companies involved, but not enough in the forefront. Most firms will ignore the problem until something dramatic happens, like losing a valuable executive who is very visible.

"But if they ignore it, it will eventually come back to haunt them."

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