Matthew La Rocco, a needle exchange counselor at the Louisville Metro Department of Health, talks with members of the business community about the affects of drug and alcohol users on employees during a One Southern Indiana series in New Albany on Tuesday. Staff photo by Tyler Stewart
Matthew La Rocco, a needle exchange counselor at the Louisville Metro Department of Health, talks with members of the business community about the affects of drug and alcohol users on employees during a One Southern Indiana series in New Albany on Tuesday. Staff photo by Tyler Stewart
NEW ALBANY — Matthew La Rocco worked at a treatment center when he first started his journey recovering from a substance abuse disorder. 

The setup was ideal: He worked right across the hall from two drug counselors. La Rocco could talk to them about his struggles whenever he needed to. 

It might have saved him from relapsing. 

The conversations he regularly had with his coworkers are the kind that keeps people from sliding into “full blown addiction,” La Rocco said. It’s the type of discussion he wants to see happen in more workplaces across Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. 

La Rocco, who is now a certified alcohol and drug counselor working for the Louisville Metropolitan Department of Public Health and Wellness, spoke to One Southern Indiana members Tuesday morning about how to innovatively address employees with substance abuse disorders. 1si’s Health and Wellness Coalition planned the event. 

When an employee has a substance abuse disorder it can cost employers in multiple ways, including in lost productivity and higher health insurance costs, La Rocco said. 

“There’s this need for us then to really invest in the people that we work with. We want to make sure that we have the best employees and that our employees function as best as they possibly can at work.” 

La Rocco only started looking into how employers can tackle substance abuse issues when another organization asked him to give a talk in January. 

He began researching the subject online, but couldn’t find any best practices for employers. 

That’s when he started coming up with his own ideas for employers based on his experiences and education. 

He wants businesses to develop a “culture of recovery” within their workplaces. 

That includes employers and employees having honest discussions about addiction and recovery.

“That means you can talk about drugs,” La Rocco said. “You can talk about having a problem with drugs.” 

He would like employers to respond to these admissions by talking over treatment options or other solutions with employees. 

When employers do offer treatment options, La Rocco wants them to make sure that they’re appropriate for and available and accessible to their employees. Some programs, for example, are too expensive for employees or they require them to take too many days off of work. 

When an employee comes back from recovery, La Rocco would like for their peers to support them, perhaps even checking in with them from time to time. 

He wants employers to celebrate recovery. That could be as simple as a boss sending out an email on an employee’s recovery anniversary, congratulating them on their accomplishment. 

Finally, La Rocco wants employers to recognize that their employees who are using drugs have value. Some might be perfectly fine workers who only use drugs on the weekends. 

“If they’re not doing a good job, that’s the conversation,” he said. “Whether they do drugs or don’t use drugs shouldn’t be unless their drug use is affecting their work performance.” 

La Rocco hopes his ideas put employers on the front lines of helping those with substance abuse issues. But right now— “work has become this island where you can’t talk about recovery,” he said. “That’s a problem. Could you imagine going through your life five days a week for eight or nine hours a day, not being able to talk about the thing that was most likely to destroy your life?

But some of his suggestions may be out of reach for the average business. 

Stacy Breland, the HR director at Plumbers Supply Co., said that legal issues would make it hard for her company to nix its zero tolerance drug policy. 

“If an accident happens and that person’s on drugs, you’re going to get sued as a result of that,” she said. 

La Rocco does admit that he isn’t a human resources professional or a business owner and that he doesn’t know what’s best for all companies. 

“There are things that you’re going to look at and go ‘dude, you can’t do that,’” he said. “HR people are going to go, ‘you can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ And maybe you can’t. But there are things you can do.” 

La Rocco is inviting local businesses to come to him and help him create a set of best practices for how to address substance abuse in the workplace. Eventually, he wants to pilot those practices at area companies. 

If nothing else, his talk started an important conversation, Breland said. 

“Until we start conversations, we don’t get answers or ideas,” she said. 

The event was 1si’s first addressing substance abuse problems in the workplace. 

Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of the economic development organization, said that talking about the issue was a step in the right direction. 

“As many of you have heard me say before, folks in Washington, D.C., regardless of who’s in office, they’re not going to give us this solution,” she said. “The folks in Indianapolis or Frankfort, they’re not going to give us a solution. This is in our community, and this is our issue.”

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