Addiction as a Workforce Development Issue

How ubiquitous is drug abuse in Virginia’s workforce? In western Virginia, it’s mind-numbingly pervasive.

“In many environments, as many as 50 percent of employee applicants who are eligible on the basis of their training, skills, and background fail to be employable because they fail to pass a drug screen,” Dr. Bob Trestman, chairman of psychiatry for Carilion Clinic, told Roanoke-area employers in a panel talk yesterday, reports the Roanoke Times.

Most employers have Employee Assistance Programs but Trestman said employees are reluctant to use them because addicts are stigmatized. “We need to think of them as people with an illness. Then we can reframe how we approach care and treatment and engage and support them in the workplace safely.”

When we reframe how society approaches substance-abuse treatment, we must recognize the strong incentives that employers have to filter out drug abusers during the hiring process. Drug and alcohol abusers are more likely to suffer from absenteeism and other productivity issues. They also pose risks and liabilities arising from on-the-job screw-ups. (Anyone remember that 2017 Amtrak derailment in which, in turned out, the engineer had used marijuana, a backhoe operator had used cocaine, and a work crew supervisor had used oxycodone?) Plus, when employees avail themselves of Employee Assistance Programs, they drive up their employers’ health insurance costs.

Putting the onus on employers to solve a societal problem is not a reasonable expectation. But there is no denying the tremendous societal cost if substance abuse goes untreated. Drug and alcohol abuse ruins not only the lives of the addicts but causes incalculable pain and harm to the people around them.

Other than saying that recovery programs should combine counseling and medication to treat addictions, Trestman did not have much to say in the panel discussion about what might be done differently.

Short-term (90-day) treatment may clean up addicts temporarily, but the relapse rate is high — I’ve heard the number pegged at 75% for alcohol addicts. Long-term treatment programs are incredibly expensive, beyond the reach of much of the population. Clearly, society needs to address more resources to the problem. The obvious question is where the money comes from. If you answer “the taxpayer,” try again.

One way to frame the issue might be to cast addiction reduction as a workforce development imperative. The Commonwealth spends billions of public dollars on K-12 education, higher ed, and workforce training with the goal of building a workforce for the 21st century. What’s the point of making that investment if half the workforce is impaired by drugs and alcohol?

If we thought of addiction reduction as a workforce-development measure, perhaps alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment programs could compete with other training and workforce-development programs for funding on the basis of which offered the highest Return on Investment. If 50% of employees in western Virginia are “eligible on the basis of their training, skills, and background” but unemployable because of their addictions, perhaps addiction is the workforce bottleneck — not education and training, as we are accustomed to thinking.

Addiction is a serious problem, and it’s getting worse. As a society, we cannot afford to squander so much human potential. We need to think differently.