Rising rates of substance abuse are hampering the ability of many Wisconsin communities to create strong, healthy workforces. To address this problem, Wisconsin’s state prevention agencies are forging unique partnerships with local businesses to implement a multi-pronged approach to drug abuse prevention in which businesses play a central role.
Date Published:May 22, 2014
Rising rates of substance abuse are hampering the ability of many Wisconsin communities to create strong, healthy workforces. Drug use depletes the work force, making open positions hard to fill. It also leads to absenteeism, onsite accidents, and unsafe work environments.
To address this problem, Wisconsin’s state prevention agencies are forging unique partnerships with local businesses to implement a multi-pronged approach to drug abuse prevention in which businesses play a central role.
Marinette, Wisconsin should be a haven for skilled trade workers. The community has many large manufacturing businesses, with an abundance of steady, well-paying jobs. Yet employers have trouble both hiring applicants and keeping positions filled.
To find out why, the Wisconsin Governor’s Workforce Development Group met with the Marinette Chamber of Commerce. The Group was surprised by what they heard. According to Christy Niemuth, prevention coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the message was loud and clear: “Businesses can’t hire or hold staff because of failed drug tests due to heroin, marijuana, and prescription drugs.”
The Group also learned that substance use produced high levels of job instability. Industry workers who use drugs are frequently unable to hold down long-term jobs – either because they stop coming to work or are fired for poor job performance. When these individuals eventually re-enter the labor pool, the hiring-firing cycle often begins again.
Marinette’s drug problem is not unique. Across Wisconsin, communities are struggling to reduce substance abuse and address its far-reaching consequences. To strategize solutions, the Workforce Development Group has joined forces with Wisconsin’s Department of Health Service (DHS) and the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (SCAODA). SCAODA, in particular, has worked with many communities and companies to address the state’s growing heroin problem.
“Drug use is hurting companies’ bottom line—their ability to grow business and their ability to have a good, healthy workforce,” explains Annie Short, co-chair of SCAODA’s Heroin Ad-hoc Committee.
Together, DHS, SCAODA, and Marinette businesses engaged in a variety of activities to better understand and address this problem. First, the partners looked to other communities for recommendations for implementing workplace-based substance abuse prevention programming. Next, they convened a town-hall style meeting to assess the extent to which heroin abuse was affecting local businesses. Finally, they reconnected with the Chamber of Commerce to explore opportunities for businesses to provide prevention education to their employees.
“Through this work, partners and alliances started forming that didn’t exist before,” reflects Jacqueline Boudreau, executive director and chief executive officer of the Marinette Chamber of Commerce. “Now we really have the attention of business. It’s an avenue for substance abuse prevention that hadn’t been utilized in Marinette as much as would have liked. But now businesses are happy that they can contribute to these efforts.”
The foundation for Marinette’s collaborative prevention approach is its “five-pillar” prevention strategy. Modelled on Vancouver’s Four Pillars Drug Strategy —a multi-pronged approach comprising harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement—Marinette’s prevention strategy includes a fifth pillar: business.
“Businesses are affected by addiction and want to help employees and others,” explains Niemuth. “This approach is a way for businesses to prevent substance abuse, to help employees through addiction, and to support employees dealing with family addiction.”
Boudreau concurs. “Workplace substance abuse programming supports all employees—not just those with substance abuse issues—because it shows that their employers value them as part of a substance-free, quality workforce.”
Over the past nine months, Marinette’s five-pillar approach has been adopted by communities throughout Wisconsin, generating new partnerships among state agencies, local businesses, and community groups
To support these efforts, HHS and SCAODA are framing substance abuse prevention as a key component of an effective business model. “We explain to employers that the more they can decrease drug use, the more their business will grow, and the employer will help the community overall,” says Short.
The agencies have summarized their recommendations in a report that underscores the importance of prevention for employees. Workplaces are an important venue for reaching 18- to 25-year-olds who aren’t in school and therefore miss out on school- and university-based substance abuse programming. Likewise, work-based services can reach working parents who are unable to attend youth substance abuse prevention workshops hosted by their children’s schools. “This benefits businesses because productivity is affected by employees who are worried about their children using drugs,” explains Short.
Moreover, substance abuse prevention messages are more effective when delivered in multiple settings— including workplaces, schools, and communities—and when they focus on changing social norms related to substance abuse. “We have the opportunity to change the culture about substance abuse when people are hearing the message everywhere, including the workplace. It helps change the culture of addiction,” says Niemuth.
Across the state, businesses large and small have begun embracing their role in prevention, building new connections with local prevention coalitions, state agencies, and law enforcement agencies to provide substance abuse education and trainings for their employees. For example, the CEO of one Milwaukee company has implemented Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT)  to promote the health of his workforce. “He believes promoting health is the same as moving any product forward,” says Niemuth. “Implementing SBIRT will help grow his business.”
Other strategies embraced by businesses include:
Wisconsin recognizes that changes like these come with challenges. Businesses implementing prevention and early intervention assistance need to strike the balance between being supportive of applicants and employees who are in treatment and recovery, ensuring workplace safety, and reducing liability. “Businesses want to help prevent substance abuse for employees and their families. But they are also trying to figure out how to provide job opportunities for those in recovery while protecting the business,” says Short. “State agency-business partnerships continue to talk about this fine balance.”
Small companies, in particular, may struggle with having fewer resources than their larger counterparts to devote to these efforts. Small companies may not have the money to screen applicants and employees for drugs, or be able to provide their employees with access to an Employee Assistance Plan. With fewer employees to begin with, it’s also harder for small businesses to find replacements for workers who are in substance abuse treatment programs. “Small employers may have fewer resources, but still experience large impacts,” explains Short.
Wisconsin is committed to supporting businesses as they work through these challenges, providing ongoing technical assistance and support as businesses forge new partnerships. “State prevention efforts focus on examining substance abuse issues from a macro level, looking at what’s happening all around the state. Then, we assist communities and businesses by providing recommendations and support for implementing evidence-based prevention strategies,” says Niemuth. “We also help forge connections among businesses and community groups, and support the local heroin task forces.”
This groundbreaking work in Wisconsin can serve as an example for other states trying to prevent or reduce employee drug abuse. “Our work is helping businesses understand their role in substance abuse prevention,” says Short. “Some companies have started training supervisors to identify drug use and intervene with employees if they suspect a drug problem. Education about drug use is happening with management. And businesses are now becoming engaged in regular dialogue about having everyone participate in the prevention and identification of substance abuse among workers.”
For more information on workplace substance abuse prevention, see SAMHSA’s toolkit Making Your Workplace Drug-Free . The toolkit contains resources and tools for producing and maintaining drug-free workplace policies and programs for companies of all sizes, including information on implementing a drug-free workplace plan, developing written policies, and creating employee education and supervisor training programs.
Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).