Substance Abuse Professionals: What They Do, And Why They’re Integral To Your Workforce

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5 September 2023

Substance Abuse Professionals: What They Do, And Why They’re Integral To Your Workforce

Almost 20 million Americans battled a substance abuse problem in 2017. The overwhelming majority of these people — over 75% — were in the workforce. This translates into significant employer healthcare and other costs related to substance abuse. For example, absenteeism tends to higher among those suffering from a substance abuse disorder and productivity is much lower as well. In safety-sensitive positions, employees who abuse drugs can put everyone, from co-workers to the public, at risk. In fact, drug abuse and addiction cost American society more than $740 billion annually in lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related costs.

Drug tests can help you identify those at risk in your workplace, but then what? This is where a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) can help. SAPs are your partners in both treating individual workers suffering from substance abuse disorder and in establishing a positive and safety-focused workplace culture.

Why You Need a SAP

Your responsibility to your employees does not end with a failed drug test. Department of Transportation (DOT) governed employers must also provide their employees with education and to some extent, rehabilitation. One of these requirements is to maintain and deliver a list of qualified SAPs in your area to any employee who either fails a drug test or admits to drug use. DOT-governed employees are also required to employ a SAP to help assess and provide a treatment plan for their employees.

While non-DOT employers are not required to meet these guidelines, from a compliance and legal standpoint, it may make sense to insist that your non-DOT SAPs are also certified.

Substance abuse and addiction can be harmful to both workplace safety and your bottom line. However, addressing the problem in the workplace can have the opposite effect. In fact, investing in a strong recovery program in your workplace, including the services of a SAP, can bring a high rate of return. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), employees in recovery have equal or lower healthcare costs, absenteeism and job turnover even compared to employees who never report a substance abuse disorder.

SAPs can help support your employees and workplace in more general terms. Their presence can go a long way towards creating a more positive and supportive workplace culture, leading to better job satisfaction, recruitment and retention.

What is a SAP's Role?

A SAP is a licensed and certified professional who provides counselling related to employee substance abuse. Following a positive drug test or a confession of drug abuse from an employee, the SAP will develop a plan with recommendations for treatment. This treatment will typically include education, rehabilitation, treatment, additional testing or other types of aftercare.

The SAP will assess the employee, often starting with an employee interview addressing their substance abuse and history. They will then recommend appropriate assistance designed to help your employee combat their drug or alcohol problem. They will remain involved with the employee and the workplace until the return-to-duty process is complete.

Some of the additional duties performed by SAPs include:

  • Meeting with clients throughout the treatment period to evaluate their health and substance problem
  • Creating treatment plans, including post-treatment plans
  • Teaching coping mechanisms
  • Working with the employer team and medical review officer (MRO)
  • Advising employers on return to work or alternative work arrangements, particularly concerning safety-sensitive positions
  • Leading group and individual therapy sessions
  • Providing updates and progress reports to employers
  • Referring clients to additional supports or counselling as required
  • Completing and maintaining accurate records or reports regarding the patients' histories and progress, services provided, or other required information

SAPs may also be required to participate in case conferences or in staff meetings at your workplace, informing your education efforts and general decision-making. They can bring valuable information to the table to help establish your workplace as both supportive and positive in its treatment of substance abuse disorders. Finally, they may also be asked to provide guidance and support to your workers' families, which can also help your worker's recovery efforts.

Finding Qualified SAPs

Most SAPs will have a comprehensive knowledge of substance abuse and strategies for combatting it. They often come from a counselling or medical background. The vast majority of SAPs have graduate degrees in their field.

SAPs, especially those working for DOT companies, must be certified. Several bodies in the U.S. can perform this certification. DOT maintains a list of professionals who may certify as SAPs and maintain strict guidelines regarding further training. At a minimum, qualified SAPs must be trained in:

  • 49 CFR Part 40 and DOT agency drug and alcohol testing rules
  • Key DOT drug testing requirements, including collections, laboratory testing, MRO review, and problems in drug testing;
  • Key DOT alcohol testing requirements, including the testing process, the role of BATs and STTs, and problems in alcohol tests;
  • SAP qualifications and prohibitions;
  • Role of the SAP in the return-to-duty process, including the initial employee evaluation, referrals for education and/or treatment, the follow-up evaluation, continuing treatment recommendations, and the follow-up testing plan;
  • SAP consultation and communication with employers, MROs, and treatment providers;
  • Reporting and record-keeping requirements;
  • Issues that SAPs confront in carrying out their duties under the program.

Further requirements include a final exam and re-certification every three years.

A Critical Part Of Your Workforce

Substance abuse is, unfortunately, part of the reality for many workplaces today. SAPs can provide the professional knowledge and insight necessary to effectively addressing and managing substance abuse and in your workplace.