A Ship, A Plane and a White Tiger

Dealing with Substance Abuse in the Workplace

There is problem in every organization which goes largely ignored because it is difficult to address.  The problem is substance abuse.

Don’t get me wrong, most organizations have some protocol in place to deal with individuals when there has been an incident or accident.  Those organizations are doing a good job with that limited group of people.

By the Numbers

The problem is that research shows only 10% of a workforce that is struggling with substance abuse ever get “caught” or are involved in a reported incident and forced to get help.

This reactive approach means 90% of the people who have an issue are unrecognized or ignored.  I’m a bit of a statistics nerd so let’s look at some numbers.

On average, 9.4% of the workforce is struggling with substance abuse.  In many industries it is as high as 15%.  Using the 9.4% mark and a company of 1000 employees to make the math easy, 94 employees have a Substance Use Disorder.  According to a study done at the University of Chicago, the cost of substance abuse in a company of that size is $624,000 annually.  This number does not include any costs paid by the company for treatment or counselling or staffing replacement costs while they are on leave or at a treatment facility.

Nor does it include the negative impact someone with a substance abuse problem has on morale or safety.  This can be significant and ongoing given that the average person who is an alcoholic or drug addict is active in their addiction for 13 years before getting help.

While on the topic of safety, 65% of workers compensation claims are as a result of substance abuse and alcohol or drugs are involved in 40% of industrial on-the-job deaths.

Still looking at numbers, absenteeism and turnover rates are higher with employees who are struggling with Substance Abuse. Absenteeism for people with a Substance Abuse Disorder ranges from 35% higher with alcohol use disorder to nearly triple the amount of days off for those with prescription pain medication use disorder when compared to the general workforce.

Turnover rates are also higher for those struggling with substance abuse and highest for employees who have marijuana use disorder.  Interestingly the study shows that both absenteeism and turnover rates are lowest for employees who are in recovery.

A Ship, a Plane and a White Tiger

You may be wondering what a ship, a plane and a white tiger have to do with substance abuse in the workplace.  These particular ones illustrate corporations, cultures and attitudes toward substance abuse.

The Ship

On March 24th, 1989 the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled over 10 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

The effects on the ecology were devastating, damaging 2100 km of coastline, killing over 100,000 seabirds, 2800 otters, 300 seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas and an unknown number of salmon and herring.

Initial accounts put the captain, Joseph Hazelwood at the controls while intoxicated but it was later found that an unlicensed third mate was at the helm while Hazelwood was below deck sleeping off the effects of a bender the night before.

The National Transportation and Safety Board determined that the third mate failed to properly navigate the ship due to fatigue or excessive workload.

The ship was under-staffed, and the crew was working 12 – 14 hour shifts plus overtime.

Punitive damages against Exxon were awarded in the amount of 4.5 billion dollars but through a series of appeals, Exxon managed to get punitive damages reduced to $507 million dollars, which, by the way, is approximately 12 hours of production for the oil giant.

The clean-up efforts continue to this day and the cost of clean-up is estimated to be in excess of $5 billion dollars.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that Exxon bore responsibility for the accident because the company “put a drunk in charge of a tanker in Prince William Sound.”

This is ostensibly true as Hazelwood had a record of multiple drunk driving arrests prior to the incident.

The Plane

In 1995 a British Royal Airforce Nimrod crashed into Lake Ontario at the Canadian International Air show killing all 7 crew.

The inquiry determined that the captain made an error of judgement in modifying one of the display maneuvers to the extent that he stalled the aircraft at a height and altitude from which recovery was impossible.

I was drinking with the crew the night before and heard one of them say that they were going to do some maneuvers that nobody had seen performed in the Nimrod and that people previously thought weren’t possible.

The value of the aircraft was put at over $120 million, a small price compared to the immeasurable and preventable loss of 7 lives.

It is generally accepted in the airline industry, to be 12 hours from bottle to throttle and I have no way of knowing if that was the case in this tragic accident.

I do know that I was never one to leave a bar early and the crew was still there when I left.  I was certainly not fit for duty the next day but managed to drag myself through a day of meetings even though I was not at my peak performance levels.

Fatigue and the after-effects after a night of drinking can be as much a factor in an error in judgement as can being over the legal limit.

That certainly appeared to be the case with the Exxon Valdez and Joseph Hazelwood as he slept off the effects of his previous night’s drinking and made the judgement call to let an unqualified third mate take the controls.

Was it a factor in the Nimrod crash?  There is no way of knowing as all 7 crew members died.  Was it poor judgement?  Absolutely.

The frightening thing about these incidents and many others like them is that in both cases members of the work team were part of the drinking escapades of the night before.

Hazelwood was reported to be drinking with other crew members of the Valdez the night before the accident and I have first-hand knowledge that the crew of the Nimrod were as well.

The White Tiger

Let’s talk about Roy Horn.

Most people will not know who Roy Horn is, but many will know him by what he did for a living and more so by what happened to him that ended his career.

Roy Horn was the Roy of Zigfried and Roy, the famed trainers of the white tigers Las Vegas act.

In 2003 one of the tigers, Mantecore, knocked Roy to the ground, bit into his neck and dragged him from the stage.  The bite was severe, severing Roy’s spine, inflicting critical blood loss, and causing severe crush injuries to other parts of his body, permanently affecting his ability to move, walk, and speak.

One of the tiger’s main handlers, said that Mantecore was “off that night” and Roy failed to recognize that and also that Roy had not been spending as much time as usual with Mantecore and had begun taking the tiger for granted.  Waiting for a moment of vulnerability after Roy becoming complacent, the handler said that Mantecore “did what tigers do”.  The ever-present wild animal within, after years of being patient, saw his opportunity.

Tying it all Together

In each of these cases something was happening that is happening in every organization when it comes to substance abuse in the workplace.

On the ship, workers were working long shifts, lots of overtime due to being short staffed and there was a history of drinking escapades that the captain and crew were not only aware of but also participating in.

Research shows that co-workers often know when something is off with a co-worker who has a substance abuse issue and also often know what the problem is.  They are hoping management will do something about it.  With an average of 9.4 of the workforce having substance abuse issues, somebody always knows.  What else was happening?  Safety and liability risks.

On the plane, again, a known culture of drinking with each member of the workgroup participating or having knowledge of the drinking and fit for duty policies regarding drug and alcohol use.  A friend of mine often says:  “Everything bad that ever happened to me started with: hold my beer and watch this.”  The flight crew was bragging about doing a maneuver which it turns out the plane was not designed to do.  Safety and liability risks resulting in the loss of human life.

Roy Horn represents management or the organization.  Mantecore, the tiger, represents what happens when the organization isn’t proactive and becomes complacent and only deals with employees whose behavior due to substance abuse becomes impossible to ignore.  Roy forgot that the wild animal in Mantecore was ever present, patiently stalking his prey until the right moment.  In a similar fashion, substance abuse is always present in every organization.  Always, and in every organization.  And it is easy to ignore but it will eventually impact everyone around it and ultimately, the organization.

Had Roy been vigilant and understanding that the wild beast will always “do what tigers do” this terrible situation could have been avoided.

Knowing that substance abuse is always there, just like the wild beast, an organization can take steps to reduce risk and all the costs associated with substance abuse in the workplace.  Can it be eradicated?  Of course not.  Just like you can’t train the wild beast out of the tiger.

Moving from Reactive to Proactive

So how does an organization shift from dealing with only 10% of an ever-present problem to providing help for the 90% who need help but won’t or don’t get any?

They do it by taking a proactive approach, talking about the elephant in the room and it starts with education.  Also, by removing the stigma of an employee raising their hand to say: “I have a problem.”  How is that done?  By allowing an employee access to programming without having to declare to a supervisor or Human Resources.  The reason they don’t self-declare is due to fear.  Fear they will be judged, fear of it being career limiting and fear they may be terminated.

The first piece, education, which can be delivered through our Substance Use Awareness training, is free to any organization who comes on board with Global Addiction Recovery.

For those with substance abuse issues, we offer two tracks with our programming.  The first is a track for employees who have declared or experience an intervention due to an incident or report.  That helps the 10%. They can be mandated to take the programming either while still actively working or while off on leave.

The 90% who aren’t subject to an intervention, can anonymously take any of the programs.  Many people who have a substance abuse problem, know they do, and are looking for help on their own terms.  They want to be high functioning and be valuable employees – and many of them are – until their problem creates more problems.

When an organization positions these programs as part of their overall health and wellness initiatives and onboard the programs with positive messaging, it shows the organization acknowledges the problem, the complexity of the problem, and that it wants to be part of the solution.

When they stay with a reactive approach, intervention appears punitive and can further shame an employee who is already struggling with a great deal of shame.

Global Addiction Recovery’s programs are designed to help those struggling with substance abuse and support any employees who may have loved ones who are struggling as well.  In addition, there are programs for people who have been sober but are relapsing, people struggling with sexually compulsive behavior and people who want to understand the underlying issues which are driving their behaviors.