Substance Abuse in the Workplace  (5.5 minute read)

Substance Abuse in the Workplace is an ever-present problem with both human and financial costs which can often be unrecognized and unaccounted for.

On average, 9.34% of any work force suffers from Substance Use Disorder (SUD). This number can be as high as 15% in some industries.

Who is Affected?
The impact on an organization goes far beyond the person who is struggling but let’s take a look at them first.

The Employee who is Struggling
Substance Use can range from mild to extreme, with extreme being considered Addiction.

Those who have gone beyond mild or recreational SUD, often have problems controlling their drinking or drug use and the weekend becomes party time, week in and week out.

From there, it escalates to weeknight drinking or drug use and can even start to happen during the workday.

The occasional practice of heading for a drink or two after work with co-workers becomes regular and soon grows to four or five drinks.

When a person crosses the line into extreme SUD and addiction, the ramifications for their health, their relationships and even their work become significant.

The Monday morning “flu” becomes frequent and so does being late and other unexplained absences. The valued employee becomes unreliable. Sometimes productivity and work quality start to slide and their attitude may change. Deadlines which were usually met, are often missed. Excuses for substandard and late work become more and more frequent.

They may be taking more unscheduled breaks or be disappearing from their post with no explanation. Trips to the washroom can become more and more frequent and this can be because they need to rest, are sick from overindulging, or they are isolating so they can use or drink.

They may be bringing drugs or alcohol into the workplace so they can drink or use at work.

It starts slowly at first and co-workers and supervisors all too often turn a blind eye or ignore the situation.

These people need help but most often none is offered until there is an incident, a series of incidents or an accident.

In safety sensitive jobs, the person struggling with substance abuse puts their own safety at risk and sometimes the safety of co-workers and the public. 40% of industrial workplace deaths are due to substance abuse and 65% of workplace accidents are related to substance abuse.

Co-Workers
Other staff members are often deeply impacted by a co-worker who is a substance abuser. They can be put in difficult positions and research indicates that they are often hoping that management will take some action.

Co-workers are usually the first people in any organization to detect a problem. They may not know what it is, but they notice something is off. The substance abuser may have a change in attitude and become irritable and harder to be around. This is usually because they are going through withdrawal from a weekend of partying or even just from the night before.

Addicts and alcoholics usually get into a pattern of blaming other people and things for their circumstances and often start to complain about the company, their supervisor or co-workers. Their worldview darkens and they can’t take responsibility for their circumstances.

Combined with the attitude change there may be a drop in productivity and a co-worker may find themselves picking up the slack.

If the substance abuser falls into a pattern of being late, or missing work, co-workers may cover for them by making excuses. At this point the substance abuser has drawn them into their addiction and things will eventually start to get more and more tense between the substance abuser and anyone they work with.

Morale starts to drop as co-workers spend more and more time covering for their workmate and often even talking about them to other co-workers. The substance abuser is taking time off, taking more frequent breaks and not producing to capacity. Yet, they are still getting paid and there appears to be no consequences.

Friendships occur in the workplace and co-workers frequently socialize together. This makes matters worse because a co-worker doesn’t want to report a friend to management or Human Resources.

Often a substance abuser will have difficulty managing their finances and may take payday loans or ask co-workers to lend them money. This puts more strain on the relationship and the workplace.

Difficult conversations need to take place and some decisions need to be made but they are often avoided, and the situation ignored.

Corrective action is usually taken when there is an incident, accident, a report by a co-worker or when productivity issues or absences become impossible to overlook. By this time, substance abuse in the workplace has cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars and a host of unrecognized and unmeasurable costs.

The Organization
Substance Abuse or Addiction create both measurable and hidden costs for organizations.

Recent research done out of the University of Chicago, shows that Substance Abuse in the Workplace costs a company $624/year/employee. That means substance abuse in an organization with 1000 employees is costing $624,000 annually.

This does not include damage to equipment, insurance claims, liability due to lawsuits or sending employees to treatment if that is company protocol.

In addition to these measurable costs are the costs of having Supervisors or Human Resources personnel dedicating time to dealing with issues for the substance abuser, intervention interviews and follow up.

One of the biggest hidden costs is found in reduced morale with the person’s co-workers as they watch their friend and co-worker struggle and find themselves having to make up for absences and poor productivity.

It should be noted that the average alcoholic or addict is active in their addiction for an average of 13 years before getting help and 60% of workers know someone who has been at work while drunk or high.

Organizations need to be aware that people with Substance Use Disorder are absent far more than the general workforce. Absenteeism is 41% higher for alcoholics, 46% higher for those with marijuana use disorder, 75% higher for those with illicit drug use disorder, and 176% higher for those with pain medication use disorder.

To summarize, substance use and abuse impacts workplace morale, productivity, safety and profitability.

What Can Be Done?
Organizations can take a more proactive approach, offering education and training to improve awareness. Typically, corporations only deal with 10% of the substance abusers. 90% go unnoticed or are ignored.

An organization doesn’t need to wait until there is an incident or accident before taking action. Employees can be educated about the impacts of substance abuse and what to look for.  And online programs are available to help people who are dealing with substance abuse or related issues.