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Why Your Workplace Should Support Substance Abuse Treatment

Substance abuse in the workplace is a serious problem. It affects not only the employee who is abusing drugs or alcohol, but all other employees and the company as well.

Prevalence of Substance Use in the Workplace

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) reported in a 2014 national drug use survey that approximately seven percent of full or part time workers had a substance abuse or dependence problem.

According to the National Drug Free Workplace 2015 Substance Abuse in the Workplace Report, about 3 percent of employed adults had used illicit drugs before reporting to work or during work hours. Understandably, co-workers of these users reported that their own job performance and attitudes were negatively affected by the behavior of their substance-abusing peers. Co-workers reported feelings of being placed in danger, of having been injured, and of having to work harder or re-do work in order to cover for a co-worker’s illicit substance use.

Factors Contributing to Workplace Drug and Alcohol Use

According to Samuel Bacharach, Ph.D., professor at Cornell University and director of Cornell’s Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies, there are four workplace factors that can contribute to employee drinking problems.

Dr. Bacharach reported in an interview on the HBO Addiction website (, that the following factors influence employees:

  • Stress: Workplace strains such as heavy workloads and too few resources
  • Alienation: Feelings of meaninglessness and powerlessness
  • Social control: Absence of supervisory controls on employee drinking
  • Culture: Workplace drinking is the “norm”

How Substance Use in the Workplace Affects a Company’s Bottom Line

Employers incur considerable costs covering employees’ physical health conditions, such as medical and prescription drug benefits, as well as short and long-term disability costs.

However, according to “The Business Case for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Literature Review” from the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, more than 70% of costs associated with mental illness and substance abuse disorders result not from medical and pharmacy claims. but instead are incurred as “indirect costs”– employee absenteeism, presenteeism (i.e., when an employee is at work but is not fully productive), turnover, and training costs involved in replacing workers.

Workplaces without a drug-free policy experience three-times-higher turnover rates than workplaces where a drug-free policy is in place.

Costs are also incurred by increased workers’ comp claims that are five times higher in workplaces without a drug-free policy, morale problems and damage to a company’s reputation within the industry and community. For example, a worker who is using drugs is more likely to be involved in a negative workplace incident or to be involved in workplace violence.

The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, “Facing Addiction in America”, revealed that in excess of $400 billion annually is lost by companies due to employees’ substance abuse. The research also showed that substance abuse treatment improves employees’ productivity, health, and overall quality of life. It is estimated that every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves companies $4 in health care costs.

Why Companies Should Encourage Treatment

According to a SAMHSA Brief for Employees: What You Need to Know about Substance Abuse Treatment, if companies embrace and encourage substance abuse treatment for their substance-abusing employees, they could:

  • Reduce turnover costs: Companies spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars to replace an hourly worker to as much as $100,000 to replace a top executive. This does not include costs incurred from losses of institutional knowledge, service continuity and coworker productivity, or from damaged morale that often accompanies employee turnover.
  • Reduce healthcare costs: Research shows that healthcare savings from investing in substance abuse treatment can exceed costs by at least a four to one ratio.
  • Improve productivity: When substance abuse treatment is utilized, work perfor­mance and productivity are improved, while interpersonal conflicts and drug-and alcohol-related accidents are reduced.

Workplace Intervention Works

Research from the Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at Cornell University determined that the workplace provided several advantages for addressing alcohol-abuse issues:

  • The workplace offers a framework for counteracting the denial and manipulation that often accompany alcoholism, because even the most problematic drinkers will not risk their primary source of income. Thus the employer has an opportunity to make certain demands on workers, pushing them to acknowledge their drinking problems and seek help.
  • It is usually more difficult at work than in other settings to disguise or hide an alcohol-abuse problem. Often peers or supervisors will notice problematic behavior and will be willing to take action.
  • Supervisors and managers can provide documented evidence of any performance-related impact that drinking is having on the employee’s work performance.
  • Once an employee agrees to seek alcohol treatment in the context of the workplace, their progress is monitored and they are less likely to leave treatment early or inadequately engage in the treatment process.

Reasons for Not Seeking Treatment

The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, “Facing Addiction in America”, found that only about 10 percent of addicted workers access a drug or alcohol treatment program. The most common reasons given for this low participation rate are that employees are unaware that they need treatment; they have never been told they have a substance use disorder; or they do not consider themselves to have a problem. These factors stress the importance of screening for substance use disorders in general health care settings.

Still, even employees who do realize that they need substance abuse treatment may not seek it. For these individuals, the most common reasons given are:

  • They are not ready to stop using (40.7 percent). This highlights a common tendency among substance abusers to underestimate the severity of their problem and to overestimate their ability to control it.
  • They do not have health care coverage, or cannot could not afford coverage. (30.6 percent).
  • They are concerned that seeking treatment could have a negative effect on their job (16.4 percent) or cause others to have a negative opinion of them (8.3 percent).
  • They do not know where to go for treatment (12.6 percent) or do not know of a program that has the type of treatment they desire (11.0 percent).

Employee Assistance Programs Can Help

Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, serve the needs of employees for a variety of mental health and other social needs, but mainly they support employees who need help with substance abuse issues. In the U.S., more than 97% of companies with greater than 5,000 employees offer EAP services to employees. In addition, 80% of companies that have between 1,000 and 5,000 employees, and 75% of companies that have between 250 and 1,000 employees also have EAP programs.

Employee assistance programs are a win-win for everyone. They connect workers with life-changing addiction and mental health services and are cost effective for employers. EAP experts have calculated that between $3 and $10 are saved for every dollar spent on employee assistance program services.

Raising awareness among employees about the impact of substance use on workplace performance, and offering the appropriate resources to employees in need, can not only improve worker safety and health but can also increase workplace productivity and profitability.





Images Courtesy of iStock

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