Employee Substance Abuse and Use in the Workplace


Cali Estes of The Addictions Coach and The Addictions Academy interviewed on Employee Substance Abuse and use in the workplace.

A Hard Pill to Swallow: Employee Substance Abuse

June 16, 2014 • Curt Finch

An invisible infection is crawling through our workplaces. It’s not the white-walkers from Game of Thrones, nor the zombies from the Walking Dead. It’s a different kind of infection and according to a recent survey by Employers Holdings Inc., one in ten small businesses have had employees dealing with it. And this is just those who have been recorded showing up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the last year. The survey, which polled 502 small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, found that alcohol was the most commonly abused substance (5.3%) with marijuana and prescription painkillers following close behind (5.1%).

These findings are in line with those of other, similar studies. A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are 18.9 million adults classified with drug abuse or dependence, and 52 percent of them are employed. Prescription drug abuse is especially on the rise, with about 20% of the U.S. population reported to have abused prescription drugs.

substance-abuseThis type of substance abuse invariably affects job performance and company health, especially in small companies where fewer employees handle more responsibilities.

“Business owners today are rightfully concerned about the use of illegal or judgment-impairing substances in their workplaces,” says Employers Holdings’ Chief Operating Officer, Stephen V. Festa. “It’s a disturbing trend that we have seen developing over the past several years with the rise in prescription opioids and the increasing legalization of marijuana.”

How Can Substance Abuse Affect Your Company?

Employee substance abuse is both dangerous and expensive, costing U.S. companies an estimated $81 billion annually. Drug and alcohol abusers are more likely to be absent, less productive, and get injuries or cause injuries to others on the job. This costs employers in sick leave, insurance claims, overtime pay, workers compensation, equipment damage, employee turnover, and damage to the company’s reputation.

As Festa puts it, “Employees under the influence of these substances in the workplace not only pose a potential danger to themselves, but also to everyone else around them.”

This seems to be especially the case with prescription drugs. “The Centers for Disease Control has reported that more people die from prescription painkillers than from heroin or cocaine,” Festa said. “Opioid addiction has been linked to decreased worker productivity, as well as making workplaces less safe, prolonging disability claims, and increasing the risk of death from overdoses.”

What Can You Do?

The first defense against substance abuse is formulating a clear policy. Small businesses should have a written policy in place stating that drug and alcohol use will not be tolerated in the workplace. This policy should outline the consequences for incidents of substance abuse, rules regarding alcohol consumption at company events (holiday parties, picnics, etc.), and if your company employs drug testing, the procedures of this testing and the consequences should a failed test arise. But it’s not enough to have a policy in place – your employees need to know about it. Make new hires read and sign this policy before starting work, and consider hosting training sessions to update current employees.

Small business owners may also want to consider instituting an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs assist employees in overcoming alcohol or substance abuse problems that are interfering with work performance. They provide screening, counseling, and referrals to substance abuse clinics. They have been proven effective, with the Gillette Company reporting a 75% decrease in abuse treatment costs after employing an EAP. Small businesses can reduce the costs of EAP implementation by working with other local businesses to jointly offer the services. Another alternative is to provide a list of nearby treatment centers and clinics to employees.

In addition to having these measures in place, business owners should also be able to recognize the signs of drug or alcohol abuse in their employees. According to Cali Estes, a certified drug and alcohol therapist, potential signs of substance abuse include bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, excessive absences, arriving to work late and leaving work early. For more signs of addiction, check out The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’s list of common signs.

Alcohol and drug use is a problem in all businesses, but it can be especially crippling for small businesses, which depend on the integrity and hard work of a small number of employees. Fortunately, putting a strong policy and treatment options in place can effectively mitigate these costs and dangers.

Connect with Cali Estes, The Addictions Coach at 800.706.0318




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