By Jeff Keeling
April Johnson took time out of her job with Washington County’s Solid Waste Department last week in hopes of becoming part of the solution to the area’s drug problem.
Johnson and seven other county and private sector employees completed a week of Team Awareness Training at East Tennessee State University. Leading the sessions was Joel Bennett, a consultant whose aim was to equip them to begin creating a different approach not just to substance abuse issues, but to general stressors in the workplace.
Bennett’s visit came as part of a new approach to a drug free workplace being offered to – but not forced upon – various Washington County departments. As folks like Johnson are trained, they can in turn begin to train others.
The goal of the evidence-based wellness program, Bennett said, is a workplace where employees feel safe in approaching trained co-workers if they or family members are struggling with substance abuse or any negative, stress-inducing issue, for that matter.
The training and the new approach were initiated by the County Commission’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee. That committee’s chair, Katie Baker, is an ETSU public health professor with close ties to university colleagues who are part of an ongoing effort to make a dent in the region’s severe substance abuse problem.
While employers certainly encounter situations in which they must discipline or terminate employees for drug-related issues, Baker said creating “a stigma-free environment and a supportive work environment for anyone who themselves or their family members are suffering from this issue is the least we can do.”
Baker said the Team Awareness program trains people who can become leaders in such an effort.
“I think this is a way Washington County can serve as a champion and a role model for other employers and other communities who are struggling with prescription drug abuse.”
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge agreed. He said the regional effort came out of an Oct. 2013 meeting of county leaders from the eight-county First Tennessee Development District (FTDD). The group identified substance abuse as the top problem across Northeast Tennessee, which has among the highest prescription drug abuse rates in Tennessee – which in turn has among the highest rates in the nation.
“The people who need to know about the problem know about it,” Eldridge said. “What we don’t have is a credible process to really start to bend the curve, if you will.”
He hopes that is changing. Mark Stevens of the FTDD was among those trained last week, and will help spearhead efforts to spread the Team Awareness concept. It’s an evidence-based approach in use for nearly two decades, and one that Joel Bennett said even the U.S. National Guard has adopted.
The standard drug-free workplace model, Eldridge said, mainly involves employee drug screening and punitive measures for people who fail those screens.
“Giving somebody a drug test and then firing them does nothing to solve the problem,” Eldridge said. “It’s the standard model that gets you a discount on your workers’ comp insurance. What it does not do is get you the opportunity for treatment. We believe that’s the key to winning this battle.”
It may also be a key to future economic success, Eldridge added. That was one reason he was glad to see a major private employer send people to the training.
“It’s very encouraging. I’ve heard again and again when I talk with our employers, ‘we’re dealing with a substance abuse problem that’s really impacting our business. It impacts an employee’s ability to function at the expected level, it affects attendance, longevity – you name it.’”
“The approach we want to take is, ‘educate, educate, educate,’” Eldridge concluded. “We want to make sure employees know we have a program available for them or their family. There’s such a stigma attached to this, and a fear –‘if I admit this my boss is going to fire me.’ This is a problem that is treatable, it can be overcome and we want to help them.”