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Information of interest to our Clients and for the industry


The common problem with a positive drug and alcohol test which no one talks about

In light of October being Mental Health Awareness Month in New South Wales, we thought we’d shed some light on the often common reason as to why an employee may return a positive drug or alcohol result.

People use, and can become dependant on, drugs and alcohol for a number of reasons; enjoyment, to relax, inclusion within a group, curiosity, to minimise physical or psychological pain or as a coping or escape mechanism. And it’s important to note that 50% of people globally who are affected by substance abuse, also suffer from mental health disorders. But with the two being closely related, we are presented with a chicken and the egg type scenario; what came first?

Often when a person suffers with a mental health condition, they use substances to ease their symptoms temporarily. On the other hand, regular drug use can trigger the first symptoms of mental health illnesses, make symptoms worse or treatment less effective. Some people use substances because they believe that they will feel better in the short term, however it can actually leave them feeling worse, anxious, agitated, unmotivated or moody. And left untreated, both mental health issues and drug or alcohol addiction can get in the way of an individual’s ability to function at work, maintain relationships, handle difficult situations and sustain a functional and stable home life.

One in five Australian’s is currently experiencing a mental health condition equating to 20% of the country’s population.

So what should you do if a worker gets a positive result? As an Employer with a duty of care, the key is to ensure that you understand the driver behind the drug use, and explore it further to determine if something else may be a contributing factor. Did the worker have a big night out with their mate which is the reason for the positive result, or did they recently suffer a personal loss which they’re struggling to cope with?

It is not the role of the employer or manager to diagnose a possible substance or dependency problem, nor pass blame or immediately discipline… after all, you don’t know if a positive result has come from medication prescribed for a mental health condition, and disciplinary action may just make the situation worse for you and the worker. It is your role to identify if an employee is impaired, unable to do their job safely, and take the appropriate steps as per the organisation’s Drug and Alcohol Policy.

Among recent drinkers (2016) 1 in 6 (17.4%) put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol in the last 12 months

So how should you support a worker with a positive result when you think there may be associated mental health issues?

  1. Employ a Drug and Alcohol Management Specialist to conduct an interview, provide guidance and make recommendations. Their expertise will ensure objectivity and legal compliance, as well as provide some reassurance to the worker. They will also be able to put together a tailored Drug and Alcohol Management Plan (DAMP) which will assess the worker’s physical, psychological and psycho-social state, and determine reasonable treatment and action moving forward.
  2. Provide opportunities for open communication and respond to their concerns compassionately. Ensure the worker feels heard, respect their privacy and confidentiality and take notes so that you can then take action.
  3. Determine what temporary changes can be made to the worker’s role or workplace to accommodate their physical and psychological needs. Do they need some time off, can they work from home, how can their workload be reduced?
  4. Provide support by offering contact details for community support groups, Employee Assistance Programs, GP or health care professional, online resources or other mental health or drug and alcohol support networks.
  5. Share your story if you’ve gone through something similar and you’re confident in sharing your experience. Be careful not to compare or say things like ‘I know what you’re going through’; simply show them that they are not alone on their journey.
  6. Let them know that they have your support in their recovery. The best treatment for co-occurring disorders is to treat them simultaneously which may mean the employee has a long road ahead of them. Let them know you’ll support them in any way you can from a work perspective. Remember – your role is to support the person be successful at work, not anywhere else.

Among recent drinkers (2016) 1 in 10 (9%) had injured themselves or someone else because of their drinking in their lifetime

When all is said and done, when mental health is concerned, the best approach is to be preventative rather than reactive. By recognising the symptoms of poor mental health and taking action, you will contribute to a positive health culture, and may prevent bigger issues such as drug and alcohol misuse at work from occurring. And if it does, if you understand the reason behind the substance abuse, you can choose the best way to respond. 

Be a proactive Employer by utilising a Drug and Alcohol Management Specialist who can assist you in identifying the risks. When addressing issues with educational understanding, the worker will be protected from further risk of deterioration, you’ll protect the business from potential unfair treatment claims, and you will retain a good employee with experience in their role.

Related reading:

You suspect a worker is under the influence, what’s next

What to do when an employee fails a drug test

The importance of critical incident debriefing in preventing psychological injuries

SafeWork NSW has recently circulated information highlighting the risk of crush injuries, as a result of two fatal incidents where truck drivers have died while working on or near their trucks. And it got us thinking… what about the psychological injuries caused to others who are unfortunate enough to witness incidents like these?

 

History tells us that high risk industries are almost guaranteed to succumb to a worker fatality at some point.

 

As of the 6th of June there had been 64 Australian workers killed at work in 2019. In 2018, that number totalled 157.

 

What history also tells us, is that for those who are exposed to or involved in a workplace incident, the first two hours are critical in assisting workers deal with their physical and emotional reactions.

And the reason being is because exposure to critical incidents can lead to significant distress; recurrent thoughts, anxiousness, mood changes, restlessness and shock. And gone untreated, distress can lead to long-term physiological issues such as Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

By providing really early intervention to a fatality or major incident on site, psychologists can counsel workers to assess their current state of mind, diagnose shock and determine if they are at risk of developing long-term psychological injuries.

Here are five critical incident management tools to assist in supporting workers:

1. If you’re in a high risk industry, prepare workers for a possible critical incident:
• Develop procedures for responding to and identifying critical incidents and ensure staff are educated and aware of procedures
• Contract suitably qualified safety consultants with experience in critical incidents and critical incident management
• Asses the workplace for safety hazards and ensure all necessary PPE is available

2. Demobilisation (rest, information and time out) is the best way to calm workers following a critical incident, ensuring their immediate needs are met as soon as possible:
• Convene with all workers, summarising the incident and clarify any uncertainties (ensure all workers have the opportunity to ask questions)
• Provide Psychological First Aid (supportive and practical assistance via assessing needs and concerns, ensuring basic needs are met and connecting people with information)
• Provide a course of action moving forward, and alter workplace responsibilities and roles where necessary

3. Defusing (immediate small group support) should be conducted by a qualified employee or external contractor and is an opportunity for workers to review the event, talk about what happened, receive advice and support. Defusing should take place within 12 hours of the critical incident occurring.

4. Debriefing as a group should take place approximately one week after the critical incident. It is an opportunity for workers to put things into perspective once they’ve had a chance to process what has happened. Often a knee-jerk reaction to a critical incident will be that ‘I don’t need to talk about it’, but often within a few days the worker may find that they are now experiencing other psychological or physical issues as a result. Debriefing allows a qualified counsellor or safety expert to assess the risk of long-term psychological injuries, determine if acute stress is present for individual workers, and can provide management techniques and tools to handle emotional reactions.

5. Follow-up support is key in psychological injuries; shock around trauma is known to manifest over time and can worsen if not addressed or spoken about. If workers find that their shock builds momentum, they are losing sleep, having recurring thoughts of the incident and are struggling to move on with every day duties, this may be a sign of a psychological injury such as acute PTSD. Workers who expressed significant concerns at earlier stages of the critical incident management process should have continual follow up support with a trained professional.

When it comes to preventing the onset of shock, and potentially acute stress or PTSD, after a critical incident, it’s recommended that all workers be involved in the critical incident debriefing process. Although many workers will be able to return to normal duties within a short time frame, if not immediately, it’s important to note that serious accidents are one of the leading causes of PTSD in Australia. But more importantly, it’s treatable and, with the right help, avoidable.

For more information or help with regards to critical incidents and psychological injuries, see our Work Health Safety Services or call 02 9957 1300.