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Published June 21, 2024

Opinion: Working through it

Employers and companies could be a resource for fighting addiction.
Opinion%3A+Working+through+it
Image by Sarah Mai

It has been over a month since some of Minnesota’s best and brightest graduated from our institution. Some of them have already found jobs and are transitioning to life after college. Others are getting there by securing internships, and others still are doing important services on campus while they take summer coursework.

I’d like to talk about something that is often overlooked about “the real world” and how it might impact your working life. Substance Use Disorder, the official diagnosis by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for any form of substance addiction, has been in the news quite a bit over the past half-decade or so.

I won’t list off how many people a year are injured or die, from opioids, cocaine, heroin or any number of new synthetic drugs.

I won’t get into legislation that is changing the landscape of what is legal or not.

I’m sure better writers, journalists and scientists than I, have informed you already. However, the workplace can be a good place to help with treatment.

Incidentally, all of this applies to a college setting too. If you replace “workplace” with “fraternity/sorority,” “intramural/D1 sports club” or “club” you can start practicing identifying and intervening, which is a valuable life skill that doesn’t get taught enough. 

Occupational health hazards include substance-associated risks that need to be detected and prevented as early as possible.

As occupational and environmental physicians, we routinely screen persons for drug use. We recognize the importance of behavioral health when it comes to workplace satisfaction and growth.

Even those who are not struggling with issues of addiction can have a myriad of health problems that could be associated with their workplace. This is especially true with young people such as yourselves, many of whom are going to be in your first career workplace. 

The particular population of SUD employees is especially vulnerable to workplace injuries. These patients and workers are present in great amounts in our society. As physicians, we need to treat these individuals based on their symptoms as well as their social determinants of health.

In my field, we do not view the workplace as entirely distinct from the clinic. The blurring of that line offers a unique avenue for the addressing and treatment of issues surrounding dependence. Addiction is often not cured, but must be continuously managed.

It would be a mistake to not utilize the workplace to attempt structured interventions. In the context of routine, purpose and life satisfaction, where someone works is a great place to monitor their well being.

The sense of community vital to treating problems of dependence usually includes family and friends. Occupation is another such facet as it provides a sense of belonging as well as a means to focus energy and interest. There is an element of identity too, that should not be overlooked.

This ought to be addressed when treating substance use disorder at the individual level. Furthermore, it should be addressed when it comes to health policy. 

Legislative efforts in regards to providing resources for addicted individuals would improve efficiency if workplace measures were taken.

Consider those ravaged by the most devastating illness in our society. The workplace is an oft-overlooked setting to identify and possibly treat substance use disorder and its associated conditions.

Since I’m quickly approaching my word count for this piece, I’ll just leave you something to Google on your own, and you can probably do it faster than me, you dang Gen-Zers.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has already come up with such an idea, they call it Total Worker Health® (TWH). TWH aims to identify programs, policies and practices that will protect US workers on the job and make work a healthful place, that could then reverse directions and make the rest of their lives healthier, and hopefully better.

I say this just to say, this is a potential treatment/management option that people close to the problem of addiction have thought about already. It’s my hope that by sharing it with you, it might have more awareness and momentum in society.

Addiction is a large and frightening problem in America and it’s something you’ll inherit as you enter the workforce. We do not have the solution, but there are pieces that look promising.

If you take nothing else away from my writing, it’s that utilizing the workplace as a place to screen, intervene and send for treatment, those affected by addiction should be considered.   

 Dominik Dabrowski is an occupational and environmental medicine physician at HealthPartners and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

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