As an employer, you care about the health, safety, and wellbeing of the people who work for you. Not only are your employees your greatest asset for the success of your business, but they are also human beings who each have personal challenges outside of work. When those personal challenges begin to affect their behavior, performance, and decision making, the result can become an expensive and dangerous liability for your company. Your job as a leader is to protect your people and your assets by addressing issues that pose a serious threat to workplace safety and the bottom line, including drug and alcohol abuse.

The Cost of Workplace Substance Abuse

You’ve read the headlines about how an opioid crisis is sweeping the country but you might not realize how widespread and harmful substance abuse issues are in the workplace. The National Safety Council approximates substance use disorders affect 20.8 million Americans, 75% of whom are part of the workforce at any given time. Whether personally abusing alcohol or distracted by a family member’s problems with addiction, the majority of your workers are affected in some way.

According to The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, U.S. employers are losing approximately $100 billion per year due to problems stemming from employee substance abuse problems, and some estimates report the true cost is well over $400 billion.

While the national statistics are alarming for us all, you might be wondering how much substance abuse could potentially cost your small business, specifically.

Shatterproof (a nonprofit dedicated to ending addiction problems) teamed up with NORC at the University of Chicago (a non-partisan and objective research organization) and the National Safety Council to develop a tool that enables you to calculate the potential costs of substance abuse disorders in your workplace. The calculation is based on industry, location, and the number of employees in your organization. You can access the tool here.

Problems Caused By Substance Abuse

It’s important to have compassion for people who struggle with addiction disorders; however, it is critical to understand that the behavior that results from their disorder poses a threat to the safety and livelihood of their coworkers.

Workers that abuse alcohol or drugs have higher reported incidents of:

  • Accidents that result in property damage, injury, or death
  • Absenteeism and tardiness
  • Performance issues due to hangovers or withdrawal symptoms
  • Distraction due to preoccupation with obtaining drugs or alcohol
  • Theft or selling stolen property at work
  • Arguments or interpersonal problems with coworkers and supervisors
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Inability to stay on task, complete tasks, or missed deadlines
  • Unpredictable behavior
  • Lack of trustworthiness
  • Negative impact on the company’s reputation

Employees with substance abuse disorders also have higher turnover rates, lower productivity, increased healthcare costs, and more frequent disability and workers’ compensation claims.  

How to Address Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Employers need to understand the impact of addiction and recognize the prevalence of substance abuse among working adults as well as the costs and risks associated with substance abuse. The good news is, substance abuse disorders are treatable, especially when the condition is addressed as a chronic disease. However, the majority of companies do not openly or proactively address employee substance abuse problems effectively.

When you recognize and address potential problems before they escalate, you’re taking an important step toward ensuring a safer, healthier, and more productive workplace overall.

When supervisors observe and document possible signs, such as mood swings or attitude changes, change in work performance, appearance, or attendance, withdrawal, or other unusual behavior patterns, an employee can be referred to get help before the problem gets out of hand.  

Not only can addressing drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace lower costs and liabilities, but it can also help the individual who is struggling with addiction. Employees are more likely to undergo treatment when it is initiated by an employer and potentially return to work as a more productive contributing member of the team.

How to Establish a Drug-Free and Alcohol-Free Workplace

A drug-free and alcohol-free workplace is an employment setting that ensures all employees adhere to activities and policies designed to discourage drug and alcohol abuse, encourage treatment, and provide a safe work environment. When you commit to a drug-free workplace as an employer, it’s important to raise awareness among your workers, educating them about the problems that result from substance abuse.

Drug-free workplace programs allow employees to voluntarily seek treatment before the addiction leads to disciplinary problems and possibly return to work, in accordance with local, state, and federal employment regulations. A comprehensive approach includes a written company policy, access to assistance, employee awareness and education, management and supervisory training, and drug testing when appropriate.

  1. Assess your needs – Consider the size, demographics, and environment of your company. Are there current problems in your workforce? Are you in a safety-risk or security-sensitive industry? Do you work with government contracts? Does your company culture promote alcohol use in social settings? Take all of this and more into account as you assess your needs.
  2. Identify resources Do you have the leadership and staff available to implement a drug and alcohol-free workplace program? Do you have existing policies in place? Do you have health and wellness programs or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place that might already cover treatment or assistance?
  3. Develop a written policy A written drug-free workplace policy is the foundation of an effective program. It will provide a record of the company’s efforts and serve as a reference when the policy is challenged. Download a SAMPLE Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplace Policy.

  4. Determine what assistance to offer – Will your company provide support through employee benefits, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), counseling, or access to recovery programs?
  5. Establish a drug-testing policy – Drug testing can deter recreational drug use that often leads to addiction and reinforces your company’s stance against drug usage. It may also be required by insurance carriers, federal regulations, or contractor requirements. You can also state under what conditions an employee will be tested, such as following an accident.
  6. Provide comprehensive training – Educate and raise awareness among your employees about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse as well as the benefits of prevention. Train supervisors, human resources staff, and your leadership team on the organization’s drug-free workplace policy and program, as well as how to recognize potential problems, document, and act in accordance with your policies.

Overall, a successful alcohol and drug-free workplace program is ongoing and will evolve over time. As addiction continues to be studied, make sure your program aligns with the latest research and best practices. Keep records, observe trends, continuously reevaluate the efficacy of the program, and adapt as needed. It’s your job as a leader to establish a workplace culture and environment that supports your written policy and is sensitive to your organization’s overall needs.

Could your organization use support implementing a comprehensive drug and alcohol awareness program or drug-free workplace policy? Contact HR Answers for custom training and consulting services.