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Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

Provided by the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., this article discusses the impact of alcohol and drugs in the workplace, including prescription drug abuse.

Substance use is rarely an “at home” problem

Workers with an alcohol problem are 270% more likely to have an accident.

Millions of people struggle with substance use disorder. Substance use is rarely an “at home” problem and can affect every aspect of the person’s life, including school, community, and work. An employee that has a substance use disorder, can unwittingly cause problems at work that are related to their substance use.

Lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft, and low employee morale are some of the most common issues related to substance use. Some other consequences are increased health care costs, human resources issues, legal liabilities, and workers’ compensation costs.

It’s clear that addressing substance use in the workplace is critical to running a successful business. However, how do employers do this without discriminating against employees with a mental health disorder? Substance use disorder is a health issue, not a personal choice. Employers who deal with addiction in the workplace benefit from taking a firm stance on substance use and have a plan for dealing with employees who are legitimately struggling.

Substance use disorder can have a major impact on workplace productivity. However, there is a difference between heavy or irresponsible substance use and substance use disorder. Employers should be aware of recurrent patterns of the following behaviors, which can point to a serious underlying health issue:

  • Tardiness, excessive sick days, or sleeping on the job

  • Hangovers and signs of physical withdrawal

  • Poor decision making

  • Aggression or defensiveness when questioned

  • Difficulty sustaining focus on tasks

  • Escalating disciplinary issues

Substance use disorder is especially prevalent in industries like food service, construction, mining and drilling, and excavation. High stress environments, combined with a work culture that encourages or normalizes “unwinding” with substances, can inadvertently contribute to substance use disorder.

Scope of the Issue

More jobs in a short amount of time can predict substance use. Workers who report having three or more jobs in five years are twice as likely to be currently using substances, than workers who had only one or two jobs in the last five years.

70%of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.

Marijuana is the most commonly used substance, followed by cocaine.

24% of workers report that they drank at least once during the workday.

35% of patients with an occupational injury were at-risk drinkers.

16% of emergency room patients injured at work tested positive for alcohol.

11% of workplace fatality victims had been drinking at the time of the accident.

How Employers Can Help

Work can be an important and effective place to address substance use disorder by establishing or promoting programs focused on improving health. Employers can encourage and support treatment for sick employees, identify substance use disorder, and take a proactive approach to dealing with issues. Rather than disciplining employees who suffer from a chronic mental health issue, employers can reduce the negative impact of addiction in the workplace, while reducing costs.

Without question, the establishment of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is the most effective way to address alcohol and drug problems in the workplace. EAPs deal with all kinds of problems and provide short-term counseling, assessment, and referral of employees with alcohol and drug abuse problems, emotional and mental health problems, marital and family problems, financial problems, dependent care concerns, and other personal problems that can affect the employee’s work. This service is confidential.

Additionally, employers can address substance use and misuse in their employee population by: implementing drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies; offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders, including aftercare and counseling; reducing stigma in the workplace; and educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs.

Recovery pays for itself in the workplace. Supporting healthier employees supports a healthier business, with better returns, a better reputation, and a better forecast for future success.


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