Wellness and Mental Health

How to Handle Substance Abuse in the Workplace?

Explore strategies and compassionate approaches to support employees facing addiction challenges in the workplace.
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Most people enjoy the occasional drink or two after a long workday or at social gatherings. Some like to indulge in it more. But once this social lubricant turns into a pattern of binge drinking or erratic behavior in the workplace, it usually indicates a more severe problem.  

Left untreated, it can harm an organization and its people, prompting a need for employers to understand substance abuse in the workplace and how to handle it. 

But it’s not just alcohol. Substance abuse can take many forms.  

By definition, it’s the overuse of alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medication, or illegal drugs. Often, these go hand in hand. A publication by the National Institute of Health reveals that people dependent on alcohol are likelier to use drugs and vice versa. 

Some studies estimate that 9.5% of full-time and 12% of part-time workers have a substance use disorder (SUD). According to more recent data from the American Addition Centers, 22.5% of employees admit to being under the influence during work hours. This could cost businesses thousands of dollars per worker in lost productivityabsenteeism, or health insurance. 

However, statistics and money aside, from an ethical standpoint, employers should ensure all their workers are in good physical and mental health. 

Creating support systems, an environment free from bias, and offering addiction treatments can go a long way in prevention, tackling most issues with substance abuse, and helping those who struggle with it. 

In this Shortlister article, we’ll go over the implications of working under the influence, the consequences of substance abuse in the workplace, and what employers can do about it.

Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Recognizing the signs of substance abuse as early as possible can sometimes be lifesaving.  

According to a national study on alcohol-related work injuries, 16% of emergency room patients injured at work had alcohol in their system.  

Substance abuse can affect behavioral health just as much as physical, eventually leading to noticeable changes in employees. Therefore, some of the most common signs of substance abuse in the workplace are categorized as follows: 

Physical signs: 

  • A decline in physical appearance 
  • Poor physical hygiene 
  • Bloodshot eyes and dilated or constricted pupils 
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain 
  • Tremors and difficulties with speech and coordination 
  • Runny nose or sniffing 
  • Frequent illness and health problems 

Behavioral signs: 

  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns 
  • Irritability, mood swings, and defensiveness 
  • Lethargy and sluggishness 
  • Increase in financial problems 
  • Difficulties with focus and memory 
  • Lack of responsibility and endangering the safety of others 
  • Changes in social behavior 

Changes in work performance:  

  • Overall impaired job performance 
  • Abrupt declines in work attendance 
  • Frequent tardiness 
  • Changes in quality and output of work 
  • Excessive breaks during the workday

Effects of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Many of the warning signs correspond to the effects substance abuse can have in the workplace. 

Overusing drugs and alcohol can negatively impact individuals in all aspects of life, including their work. However, the consequences extend beyond the individual and can influence the well-being of others, in this case, colleagues and the organization.  

For example, a National Safety Council article reveals that, on average, people miss 15 workdays annually outside their vacations and holidays. For those with SUD, the number goes up to 24.6 days a year. However, recovered employees were the least likely to use additional days, and had an average of 10.9 missed workdays. 

Absenteeism is one of the most prevalent effects of substance abuse in the workplace, but the impact further expands to: 

  • Lower employee morale 
  • Loss of productivity 
  • Conflict among employees 
  • Poor work performance 
  • Workplace accidents and injuries 

Each of these examples can be dangerous to the organization and its workforce in its own way. However, the latter poses a significant threat to the safety of those who use drugs or alcohol on the job and those around them.

The Dangers of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Any form of substance abuse can be harmful and expensive to the business. But, even more concerningly, it can also be dangerous to the employees. 

The CDC reports that drug overdose death is rising, and employers are not ready. Moreover, people with untreated substance abuse disorders can pose a danger in and outside the workplace. Since they are more prone to accidents, not only can they hurt themselves, but they can also harm the people around them, including their colleagues. 

However, it’s worth noting that SUD is not the only threat. Working under the influence harms the organization and its employee well-being, even when it’s related to the recreational use of drugs and alcohol. 

One study finds that casual drinkers are responsible for most of the lost productivity in the workplace. The report further shows managers were under the influence the most, as 23% of upper managers and 11% of first-line supervisors reported drinking during the workday as opposed to 8% of employees. 

Overall, any type of substance use that affects people’s cognitive or motor skills, alertness, and ability to pass judgment can be unsafe in the workplace.

How to Handle Substance Abuse in the Workplace Environment?

Substance abuse is a complex issue that goes beyond the use of drugs and alcohol. Dealing with everyday stressors, poor mental health, or other personal matters can undoubtedly be an instigator. SUDs, after all, are mental disorders and should be treated as such. 

One thing employers need to understand before dealing with such a sensitive matter is that behind the destructive exterior, there’s a person who could use their help. 

That’s why they must approach the matter carefully and show compassion and respect for their colleagues. Then, to handle substance abuse in the workplace environment, employers must determine the potential causes and set up a strategy to eliminate or minimize them.

Contributing Factors

People use drugs and alcohol for many reasons. Although most do it recreationally, losing control can lead to addiction, especially if the person is dealing with other prevailing matters. Some studies have shown that addiction runs in the family, and a person’s genetics account for 40-60% of the risk. However, this is not resolute, and other contributing factors exist. 

For example, some people use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with a stressful environment or the mental toll of excessive overwork 

The American Addiction Centers reports that different professions and age groups show different alcohol and drug misuse. For example, construction workers, miners, and other service industries had higher rates, while educators and healthcare professionals had among the lowest rates of substance use disorders. 

There are many contributing factors to substance abuse in the workplace, including: 

  • Job stressors 
  • Workplace trauma 
  • Lack of work-life balance 
  • Isolation and loneliness 
  • Long hours 
  • Physically demanding jobs 
  • Availability of alcohol and drugs 
  • Workplace culture 
  • Lack of supervision 
  • Low visibility at work 
  • High mobility during the workday 

Dealing with Substance Abuse in the Workplace 

Dealing with substance abuse in the workplace means recognizing the signs, eliminating the contributing factors, and providing easy access to company resources and treatment. This has proven effective in improving their legal, social, and mental functioning.  

In fact, a study titled Substance Use, Symptom, and Employment Outcomes of Persons with a Workplace Mandate for Chemical Dependency Treatment reveals that employer-initiated treatment gives better results than self-initiated treatment. 

Overall, employers play a pivotal role in treating substance abuse. With the HR department’s help and other employees’ support, they can create a drug and alcohol-free environment, as well as a safe space for those seeking help without judgment.

How to Prevent Substance Abuse in the Workplace?

Preventing substance abuse in the workplace requires a multifaceted approach that involves education, training, and policy implementation. 

The following are some of the ways employers can protect themselves and their employees:

  • Develop a drug-free workplace policy. This involves implementing a clear and concise drug-free policy that outlines the organization’s expectations and consequences.  
  • Educate employees and lead by example. Offering education and training programs for workers, managers, and executives can raise awareness about the risks of substance abuse, the signs, and where to seek help. 
  • Provide support. Employers can offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), counseling services, and referrals to treatment providers. 
  • Provide a safe and healthy workplace and reduce stigma. Creating an ethical environment that promotes well-being, encourages healthy behavior, and destigmatizes seeking treatment can help companies prevent workplace substance abuse. 
  • Monitor the workplace. Organizations should monitor for potential signs of abuse by identifying suspicious behavior.

Cost of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Substance abuse in the workplace can have a high cost, not only in terms of the impact on the individual but also on their colleagues, productivity, and the entirety of the organization. 

Currently, $81 billion per year is a rough cost estimate for employers. This includes absenteeism, healthcare costs, and productivity costs. Another research further reveals how companies that ignore the issue can lose an average of $8,817 annually per employee with an untreated SUD. 

However, the actual financial implication largely depends on many factors, from the workplace environment to the industry.  

Hence, the National Safety Council has created an employer calculator that predicts the cost of substance abuse in the workplace. This could give a better overview of the expenses based on the state, number of employees, and industry.

On a Final Note 

Employer-initiated SUD treatments have proven to be successful. Moreover, showing respect, offering the proper support, and creating a positive company culture can alleviate the stigma of seeking help for those who need it. 

In the long run, by addressing substance abuse in the workplace, employers can not only improve workplace safety and productivity but also promote the health and well-being of their employees.

Written by Tamara jovanovska

Content Writer at Shortlister

Addiction Treatment

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