Substance Abuse in the Workplace: What to Look For, How to Stop It

Employee problems with alcohol abuse, as well as the misuse of prescription drugs and illicit drugs, can be devastating on personal and professional levels. Unfortunately, these issues are fairly common.

Not only is substance abuse an ongoing issue, it can change over time, exacerbated by new factors. A rising rate of opioid addiction and related drug abuse has become an especially prevalent problem in recent years. The isolation and stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic may have also played a role in worsening addiction and substance misuse problems.

The Employee Substance Abuse Landscape

American Addiction Centers noted only 38% of employees surveyed did not know any people who abuse substances while at work.

While it’s challenging to fight back against rising rates of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace, it’s also highly important. As the National Safety Council pointed out, a workplace that has good policies in place to actively deal with alcohol and drug issues can benefit from:

  • The employee morale and motivation benefits of a safe, healthy workplace
  • Reduced workplace accident and theft rates
  • Better employee productivity and lower turnover
  • Reduced employer insurance costs, including for workers’ compensation

These advantages are on top of the major personal advances and mental health benefits that can come from confronting a substance dependency or addiction.

Recognizing Employee Substance Abuse Issues

To start your new program, you will have to find out the extent to which drugs and alcohol are creating problems in your organization. Random testing is one way to determine where issues reside, but there are other options.

The NSC noted that employees should be trained on symptom recognition to see whether they should be concerned about abuse problems. This training should also remind them not to jump to conclusions. Assuming an employee appearing imaired at work is suffering from drug or alcohol abuse can lead to a mishandling of a situation.

With that said, managers and rank-and-file employees should watch out for personal issues such as employees working in unsafe ways or changing their behavior suddenly. Unexplained, frequent absenteeism can also be a red flag.

There are also workplace-wide signs of trouble, such as turnover issues, low productivity and increasing workers’ compensation claims. There may also be blatant signs, such as drug screenings turning up more positives.

Workplace Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery Programs

Every workplace should have a formalized structure in place to not just detect but treat employee issues with drug and alcohol abuse. 

Managers should be careful and intentional when setting the tone and content of the strategy. When these programs are focused on protection and assistance rather than punishment and blame, they are best able to get people the help they need.

The federal government’s Service Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration outlines the basic steps it takes to build or revise a program for protecting and assisting employees.

  1. Take stock of the resources that already exist within the workplace: Do you test for drugs and alcohol? Has your HR department been trained on addiction matters? Are there existing programs for health and wellness?
  2. Create the formalized plans you’ll use going forward. Your centralized substance abuse policy will list your goals, the rules employees will follow, assurances, consequences, treatment options and more.
  3. With a plan in place, you then decide whether to set up an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This formalized treatment structure is especially useful at workplaces with high-risk workforces.
  4. Determine where you need drug testing. Sometimes, this is mandated by customers, insurers or the government. In other cases, it’s just a safety measure.
  5. Educate your team on the program and make sure it becomes part of the workplace culture. Employee substance abuse training may determine whether the program succeeds or fails to take hold.

A fully featured policy, with clear rules and norms, will clearly be better than an undefined program or ad hoc, inconsistent approach.

Training to Counter Substance Abuse in the Workplace

When it’s time to train your employees on the ins and outs of substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery, you’ve got plenty of options. Training courses can target specific professions or job titles, or take on specific issues such as defining reasonable suspicion of addiction or a substance abuse problem.

When your whole team is well versed in the expectations around alcohol and drug abuse, as well as recognition, prevention and addiction treatment approaches, you’re better equipped to help your people — and the company as a whole.

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