Substance abuse in the workplace—Part 1

March 27, 2003
By: Vicki Bell

Editor's Note: Part 2of this series outlined preventing and dealing with the problem.

Substance abuse and the workplace are a lethal mix that can raise costs, reduce profits, and lead to serious injuries and fatalities. The most recent numbers from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) are staggering:

  • 6.6 percent of Americans employed in full-time jobs report heavy drinking, defined as drinking five or more drinks per occasion on five or more days in a 30-day period; 4.9 percent of part-timers and 10.4 percent of unemployed workers also report heavy drinking; the highest percentage of heavy drinkers (12.2 percent) is found among unemployed adults ages 26-34.
  • Up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism.
  • 60 percent of alcohol-related work performance problems can be attributed to employees who are not alcoholdependent, but who occasionally drink too much on a work night or drink during a weekday lunch.
  • 21 percent of workers reported being injured or put in danger, having to redo work or to cover for a co-worker, or needing to work harder because of others' drinking.
  • Shortfalls in productivity and employment among individuals with alcohol or other drug-related problems cost the U.S. economy $80.9 billion in 1992, of which $66.7 billion is attributed to alcohol and $14.2 billion to other drugs.
  • Although 70 percent of all current adult illegal-drug users are employed, use of most illicit drugs is substantially higher among the unemployed; prevalent differences in crack use are especially pronounced, with rates almost 10 times higher among unemployed persons than those with jobs.
  • 63 percent of firms responding to a 1991 survey were engaged in some sort of drug testing, a 200 percent increase since 1987.
  • Employees who were in serious trouble with alcohol showed significant improvement in drinking behavior and job adjustment during the months immediately following an intervention to confront problem drinking that was intruding on their work.

Defining Substance Abuse

Some behaviors are obvious indications of substance abuse. Individuals dependent on heroin, cocaine, or crack, who must have these drugs to get through the day, clearly are substance abusers. And the dependence can be psychological as well as physical.

Abuse also can include regular marijuana use, heavy drinking, weekend binges, and casual consumption of tranquilizers or misuse of other prescription drugs. Substance abuse is any use of drugs or alcohol that threatens physical or mental health; inhibits responsible personal relationships; or diminishes the ability to meet family, social, or vocational obligations.

Risk Factors

According to the NCADD, certain factors increase the potential for substance abuse:

  • Work roles with little or no supervision and those characterized by high mobility are associated with increased rates of problem drinking (the stereotypical traveling salesman).
  • Numerous studies suggest a significant relationship between work stress and the development of drinking problems.
  • In general, unmarried workers (divorced, separated, or never married) have about twice the rate of illicit drug and heavy alcohol use as married workers.
  • Workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past-year illicit drug users as those who have had two or fewer jobs.
  • 75 percent of workers paid on an hourly basis at one manufacturing plant report that it is easy for them to drink at their workstations. This group includes assembly line workers, electricians, and machinists.

Studies have shown that employed women drink more and with greater frequency than nonemployed women. These studies point to greater accessibility to alcohol and complex issues surrounding the gender balance of a workplace or occupation as being the primary reasons for the increased consumption—not job stress, job conflict, or role overload.

Among the occupations reporting higher rates of illicit drug use are construction, food preparation, and food service workers. Heavy alcohol use follows a similar pattern, although auto mechanics, vehicle repairers, light-truck drivers, and laborers also have high rates of alcohol use.

The lowest rates of illicit drug use are among workers in the following occupations: police and detectives, administrative support, teachers, and child care workers. The lowest rates of heavy alcohol use are among data clerks, personnel specialists, and secretaries.

Telltale Signs

It can be difficult to identify all but the most blatant cases of substance abuse in the workplace, but there are signs that suggest possible drug and alcohol problems:

  • Frequent, prolonged, and often unexplained absences
  • Involvement in accidents both on and off the job
  • Erratic work patterns and reduced productivity
  • Indifference to personal hygiene
  • Overreaction to real or imagined criticism
  • Overt physical signs such as exhaustion or hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech, or an unsteady walk

Marijuana users may have bloodshot or glassy eyes and a persistent cough. Cocaine users display increased energy and enthusiasm early in their drug involvement. Later they may exhibit extreme mood swings and become paranoid or delusional. Alcohol abusers find it hard to conceal hangovers. Their productivity declines, and they may show signs of physical deterioration.

Not Just the Abuser's Problem

The abuser is severely damaging his or her health, relationships, financial status, and future. Individuals with drinking problems or alcoholism at any time in their lives suffer income reductions ranging from 1.5 percent to 18.7 percent, depending on age and sex, compared with those with no such diagnosis.

In the workplace abusers negatively affect their co-workers and the employer's bottom line. Absenteeism among alcoholics or problem drinkers is 3.8 to 8.3 times greater than normal and up to 16 times greater among all employees with alcohol and other drug-related problems. Drug-using employees take three times as many sick benefits as other workers and are five times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim.

Nonalcoholic members of alcoholics' families use 10 times as much sick leave as members of families in which alcoholism is not present.

Forty-three percent of CEOs responding to one survey estimated that use of alcohol and other drugs cost them 1 to 10 percent of payroll.

Clearly, substance abuse is a serious problem in the workplace. In Part II of this series, we will examine what can be done to prevent, detect, and deal with the issue.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209