Addressing substance abuse problems in the working environment – the earlier, the better
Substance abuse problems are relatively common. Various studies show that as many as about 50% of working-age men and about 25% of women consume too much alcohol. As many as 70% of those addicted to alcohol are employed. It is the employer's responsibility to intervene if there is reason to suspect that an employee has a substance abuse problem that affects their work. Intervention is important, not only for the well-being of the individual but also from an organizational point of view; heavy alcohol consumption increases sickness absences, contributes to the risk of disability retirement and unemployment and reduces the productivity of work.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2018, the Numerot puhuvat study* (in Finnish) calculated that the consumption of alcohol causes Finnish workplaces to incur annual costs of at least EUR 500 million, possibly more than EUR 1 billion. The COVID-19 epidemic, which has continued for the last two years, has caused a lot of concern about the growing scale of substance abuse problems among working-age people.
“In the light of the statistics, it appears that the number of workers who suffer from substance abuse and have access to treatment in occupational health services is lower than the actual number workers suffering from substance abuse as estimated on the basis of population surveys. We can assume that a lot of substance abuse problems currently remain hidden and will not be addressed in time,” says Matti Palomäki, Occupational Health Physician in charge of Terveystalo's substance abuse program.
“As the restrictions imposed on society are now easing, workers will be required to physically participate in the activities of the work community. Substance abuse problems that remained hidden due to working from home can come as a surprise to supervisors who should be prepared for these challenging situations,” says Palomäki.
In autumn 2021, Terveystalo developed an operating model to improve the identification, evaluation and treatment of substance abuse patients. Terveystalo also prepared online coaching for supervisors, providing information and tools for identifying substance abuse problems, addressing them and taking action at an early stage.
“Addressing issues at an early stage is important in order to minimize the impact of substance abuse problems on the working environment, occupational safety and the individual's ability to work. Speaking up about an employee’s substance abuse issues is often challenging and even awkward for the supervisor, which is why the treatment is often delayed. Setting things right requires a clear operating model from the occupational health partner, in addition to which supervisors play a major role in initiating the care pathway,” says Palomäki.
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