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Employee Assistance Program EAP Blog

Sabotage of Treatment By Supervisors Following Reasonable Suspicion Training and Employee Identification

Posted by Daniel A. Feerst, BSW, MSW, LISW-CP on

Reasonable suspicion training is designed to save lives and prevent losses, but supervisors often undermine

Reasonable Suspicion Training

their own role in a drug-free workplace after being educated about substance abuse and even successfully identifying substance abusing workers who are then subsequently referred to treatment for addictive disease. What's going on?

After an employee returns from treatment, the risk is high that relapse will occur. However, most people—and I would  say even some addiction treatment professionals—do not understand the hair-trigger mentality of the recovering patient (employee) and the strong desire many have to drink or use drugs again. What's missing is an excuse to do so. And an excuse that can be rationalized well. Who better to provide it than an authority figure like a supervisor.

Alcoholics are magnets for enablers. They love enablers because these individuals can unwittingly facilitate and support the addict's ready-on-deck and willing to drink fragile state.

This is where defense mechanisms come into play, and the best treatment programs educate patients about defense mechanism, how they work, and how important it is to thwart their power over one's recovery program.

Most supervisors do understand the dynamics of defense mechanism and  how they undermine treatment. A bit of education on defense mechanisms can help supervisors be less enabling, and prevent them from playing an unwitting role in relapse.

All relationships with addicts have the potential to become enabling, and alcoholics or addicts who are on the trajectory to drink by not fully participating in a recovery program will eventually consciously or unconsciously signal their enabler to play along, be provocative, or some manner help with opening the doorway to relapse.

Although only eight or nine common defense mechanism were present in your psychology 101 class in college, there are many more. Some are quite complex. -- Here is an article that discusses over 30 of them. You may have heard of denial or rationalizing, intellectualizing, and perhaps projection and suppression, but there are dozens more. Most escape awareness.

They key point is that supervisors and family members are sitting ducks for being re-hooked into a pathological communication dynamics with employees who have been in treatment and are know on the path to drink or drug. And the alcoholic's or addict’s efficient and subconscious of these defense mechanism are key to the goal. Remember, defense mechanism protect the ego--they in effect all the alcoholic permission to drink despite the prohibition and requirement to stay abstinent for psychoactive substances.

Reasonable Suspicion Training

An example of this subtle and pathological communication and the dynamic at work is found in this example:

An employee comes back to work from alcoholism treatment after being in a hospital setting for a couple weeks. The employee got into treatment after an assessment following a positive test. .

After a week on the job, the employee appears tired and mentions to the supervisor, “Boy, keeping up with everything the EAP wants me to do, handling this workload you give me, and also going to AA meetings five nights a week is killing me.” The employee is looking for sympathy, empathy, compassion, and is on the path drinking or drug use. Of course the supervisors does not know this.

As a supervisor, what you would say if an employee made such statements? The best answer of course is any one that refers to the employee to the EAP or his health provider to problem solve the situation.

The supervisors of course can discuss workload, but it is critical to not enter into a discussion about treatment recommendations and modificaton, or even a hint of it. Discussing workload is okay, but imagine saying something like, "Wow, that's a lot. Can you go to fewer meetings than five per week?"

Such a response will may trigger diminishing involvement with the treatment plan that can lead to relapse. What comes next is the recovering employee rationalizing a night off from AA after this discussion. One night off leads to two. Then more. All of it leads to risk. And risk leads to an event where the employee drinks. There is no mystery to relapse. It comes from non-treatment or mismanaged treatment in addiction recovery.

[If you train supervisors in substance abuse, spending even one minute on this material in your DOT Supervisor Training or Reasonable Suspicion Training, will reduce risk of relapse and help supervisors be less susceptible to these subtle ways of sabotaging treatment and recovery?

Compassion and empathy are the tools for killing addicts. Addicts on a relapse trajectory will manipulate those in relationships with them, subtly albeit, but predictably. The goal is using cognitive distortion to take what the enabler says and use it to escape personal responsibility for the relapse. It does not take much, but you can see why supervisors are admonished to stay away from discussing personal problems and issues with employees.

Compassion and sympathy are traps. Employing them in a relationship with a recovering person requires extreme awareness so you do not "kill the addict with kindness.” What's need instead is the message of accountability.


The above preview link to the full audio/visual portion of the program does not include EIGHT HANDOUTS AND 35 TEST QUESTIONS - all of which count toward the two required hours mandated by the DOT for regulated positions. This program is available in DVD, PowerPoint, Video for Web sites, or the self-contained web course. All products are brandable, editable, and amendable.

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