Employees with substance abuse problems cost businesses billions of dollars each year. According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among the 17.8 million Americans aged 18 or older who admitted to illicit drug use, nearly 73% were employed. This equates to 12.9 million employees who admit to some form of substance abuse.
For the majority of substance abusers, their problem lies with alcohol. According to information published by Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, a part of the George Washington University Medical Center, alcohol abuse costs American businesses $134 billion in annual losses. Most of the losses are due to missed work: 65.3% of this cost is caused by alcohol-related illness, 27.2% due to premature death, and 7.5% to crime. People addicted to alcohol also spend more time in the hospital and have higher rates of job turnover than their non- or light-drinking co-workers.
Data such as this shows that alcohol and other substance abuse takes a toll on workplace productivity, and contributes to higher medical costs both for treatment of the addiction and for substance-related medical issues. Employee substance abuse problems also cause an increased occurrence of workplace accidents and higher Disability and Workers Compensation costs. There is no question that it is in an employer’s best interests to find ways to minimize the impact of employees’ substance abuse on the workplace.
Experts in the field stress that it is imperative that employers educate employees about the health hazards of substance addiction and encourage employees to seek early treatment of any problems. While stressing the importance of a drug-free workplace, policies that rely primarily on discipline can result in addicted employees hiding their problems out of fear of losing their jobs, and in co-workers enabling such behavior in a spirit of friendship. In this type of environment, an addicted employee might resist seeking assistance — such as obtaining treatment under the medical plan or taking a leave to enroll in a treatment program — until a crisis occurs.
On the other hand, employees will be more likely to seek the help they need if they believe that by doing so they will receive help, not punishment. The same is true of co-workers, who can be a valuable resource in encouraging addicted employees to ask for help and to stay committed once treatment has begun.
Since substance abuse is truly a medical problem, most medical insurance plans include at least some substance abuse benefits. Workplace communications about a business’s policies on alcohol/drug use should include this information. If employees realize that help is within reach, they are more likely to seek solutions to their problem. Some employees might not realize that this benefit is available to them. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can also offer screenings, counseling, and treatment referrals for employees with substance problems. Depending on the individual EAP design, it also might have worksite awareness and supervisor training programs.
Employers should make employees aware that any communications regarding substance abuse issues are confidential. This, together with a supportive (instead of punitive) environment, increases the likelihood that employees will ask for help.
With so many dollars wasted in lost productivity, the incentives for a business to promote substance abuse awareness are compelling. And, because work is such an important part of most people’s lives, the workplace can be an effective place for substance abuse intervention to begin.