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Buzzed at Work: The Effects of Alcohol and Drug Use on Workplace Performance

Fred and co-worker/friend, Todd regularly take their dinner breaks together while working the afternoon shift at a large manufacturing plant. Every evening, both Fred and Todd bring a thermos filled with an alcoholic beverage to their meals. In fours years of doing this, no one has yet questioned the two about drinking on the job. And Fred and Todd say that they are not the only plant employees who drink at work.

Fred and Todd are taking a big risk. Not only it is against company policy to drink on the job, the two are subjecting themselves to a greater potential for accident and injury. When they return to the plant environment, which is filled with dangerous machinery, they may not notice any impairment in their muscle coordination, reflexes or judgment. But all of these are affected by alcohol use, and even a slight impairment can lead to an accident.

Dangers of Substance Use at Work

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), of all drug and alcohol users, about 75% hold regular jobs, and in approximately 10% of the cases where employees are involved in deadly accidents at work, the deceased tested positive for drug or alcohol use.

…approximately 20% of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes felt that a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking was jeopardizing their own productivity and safety.A study by Michael Frone, Ph.D., from the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo, NY, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 91, 2006), found that on average, among employees who used illicit drugs at work, 56% did so at least once per week. The study estimated that slightly more than three percent of all employed adults use illicit drugs while at work, with most of these (2.8 percent) being impaired at work due to their use. NCADD, (The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) found in a review of hospital emergency room statistics where occupational injuries had occurred, that approximately 35% of these patients were at-risk drinkers.

There is also potential for danger to co-workers of impaired users. As reported in an NCADD Alcohol Fact Sheet , approximately 20% of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes felt that a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking was jeopardizing their own productivity and safety.

Contributing Factors in Employees’ Use of Substances at Work

While there is never a legitimate reason to condone illicit substance use at work, there are contributing factors that help explain it. The University of Buffalo study by Michael Frone, Ph.D. includes data that suggests underlying causes of illicit substance use at work include low supervision of worker behavior, a lack of formal policies, and high-stress work environments.

The NCADD Alcohol Alert report stresses additional factors such as workplace culture, stating that a workplace’s tolerance of drinking is partly influenced by the gender mix of its workers, with male-dominated occupations tending to have higher rates of heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems. Such male-dominated occupations may have heavy drinking cultures because the men use drinking to build solidarity and show conformity to the group.

Another factor noted by NCADD is workplace alienation, which is when an employee feels disconnected from the organization and therefore has a reduced sense of concern for the organization. Such feelings often stem from a belief by the employee that their job or work is not meaningful to other aspects of their lives. Work that is boring, stressful, or isolating can contribute to workplace alienation and lead to risky drinking.

Employee drinking has also been associated with:

  • A low job autonomy
  • Lack of job complexity
  • Lack of control over work conditions and products
  • Sexual harassment
  • Verbal and physical aggression
  • Disrespectful behavior

How Illicit Substance Use Affects Workplace Performance

Not only does illicit substance use endanger workers, it is costly to employers because of lost productivity and reduced efficiency. NCADD reports that the use of illicit substances in the workplace affects performance of workers in the following ways:

  • Tardiness
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Theft
  • Poor decision making
  • Loss of efficiency
  • Lower morale of co-workers
  • Increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers/supervisors or tasks
  • Higher turnover
  • Costs of training of new employees
  • Disciplinary procedures

Efforts to Help Workers and Workplaces

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, NCADD began working directly with employers and workplaces to address alcoholism, creating the first Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as a joint labor-management program.

Today, EAP and Drug-Free Workplace Programs (DFWPs) help employees and their families by facilitating referrals to community resources and services. Employers with successful EAP and DFWP programs report improvements in morale and productivity and decreases in absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover, and theft. Employers with longstanding programs also report better health status among employees and family members and decreased use of medical benefits by these same groups.

The Economic Effect of Illicit Substance Use in the Workplace

The cost to individual businesses and the economy in general, due to illicit substance use, is staggering. According to the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy, in 2007 (the time of their most recent estimate), the yearly economic cost of drug abuse in the workforce was approximately $120 billion. Most of the loss came from lost productivity, and included costs of drug abuse treatment and premature death among workers.

Effectiveness of EAPs in Reducing Workplace Substance Use

Although research on the effectiveness of EAPs is limited, and it is difficult to separate out the effectiveness of EAP programs specifically, as opposed to all other types of referral and treatment programs, some studies have found that EAPs are effective in reducing employees’ alcohol problems.

…studies have found that EAPs are effective in reducing employees’ alcohol problems.One of the most successful aspects of EAPs that distinguished them from the beginning and has been most appealing to workers is the concept that EAP referrals, rather than being “coerced” or forced upon the employee, should ideally come as informal self-referrals, where the employee him or herself seeks out services.

EAPs have modeled themselves as employee-friendly resources for a wide range of personal difficulties, including alcohol and drug problems. Employees are made to feel that they can utilize EAP services without stigma or penalty and with assurances of confidentiality. Positive attitudes toward EAPs by supervisors have also been shown to increase the utilization of EAP services by employees.

Workplace substance use is a real threat to employees, employers and the economy. Fortunately, resources and education are available to address the threat. The more acceptable they become to use, the greater the benefits will be for everyone.
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