Substance abuse in the workplace—Part 2

Preventing and dealing with the problem

April 10, 2003
By: Vicki Bell

The toll that substance abuse takes on the abuser, his or her family and friends, and those who become victims of substance abuse-induced accidents and crimes is well-documented.

Editor's Note: Part 1of this series outlined the sobering facts of substance abuse in the workplace.


The toll that substance abuse takes on the abuser, his or her family and friends, and those who become victims of substance abuse-induced accidents and crimes is well-documented. So is the loss to business, at least from a financial standpoint, of the toll substance abuse takes on a company's bottom line. The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) reports that U.S. companies lose $100 billion a year because of alcohol- and drug-related abuse by employees. In Canada, the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) estimates the annual cost of absenteeism or tardiness caused by substance abuse is approximately $400 million in Alberta alone.

These numbers do not include business's cost of dealing with the problem, resources that could be spent elsewhere, or the pain and suffering of abusers, a cost that cannot be measured in economic terms. They do include expenses of absenteeism, injuries, health insurance claims, loss of productivity, theft, and fatalities.


According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), workplace programs include both primary and secondary prevention. Primary prevention aims to keep alcohol problems from developing, and secondary prevention seeks to reduce existing problems. Researchers have expressed concerns that workplace programs overemphasize secondary prevention. Although primary prevention often is more cost-effective than secondary prevention, the workplace is not conducive to strategies aimed at preventing alcohol use. Adults legally are allowed to consume alcohol, and employers rarely are in a position to prevent employees from drinking off the job, nor do they desire to do so.

The use of controlled substances, while clearly illegal except in rare medical cases, is an issue that our national, state, and local governments and many well-meaning organizations have tried to prevent. The dangers of drugs are well-publicized, and the Just Say No messages are everywhere. But drug abuse is not restricted to illegal drugs; people are addicted to and abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Primary Prevention

So what can an employer do in terms of primary prevention? Every employer should have a written policy that is endorsed by top management, clearly understood by all employees, consistently enforced, and perfectly clear about what is expected of employees and the consequences of policy violations.

If the company has a formal employee handbook, the policy should be included and clearly listed in the table of contents. Employees should be instructed to read the material whether it's part of a handbook or a separate handout. Some companies require employees to sign forms indicating that they have read and understand the policy when they are hired. Some hold departmental or companywide meetings to discuss policies and make sure that everyone understands the policy. Changes in policy need to be communicated and explained promptly.

Companies must advise employees that they are responsible for reading and understanding the policy and for asking questions if something is unclear. Ignorance of a policy that has been disseminated to all employees should not be an excuse for infractions.

According to NIAAA, work plays an important role in most people's lives. Because many adults' roles in the family and community depend on maintaining the income, status, and prestige that accompanies employment, the relationship between the employer and the employee contains a degree of leverage. The employer has the right to expect an adequate level of job performance. If substance abuse breaches the rules of the employer-employee agreement or results in a substandard job performance, the employer may withdraw pay or privileges associated with the job, a factor that motivates many employees with substance abuse problems to change their behavior.

As part of a primary prevention program, an employer should design a drug- and alcohol-test to prevent hiring workers who use illegal drugs and to provide early identification and referral to treatment for employees with drug or alcohol problems.

Secondary Prevention

The more common secondary prevention seeks to reduce existing problems. One way to help reduce existing problems is to combine the availability of counseling and treatment with drug education. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) counsel employees and their families for a variety of reasons, including substance abuse. The goal of EAP professionals is to make it possible for employees to remain on or return to the job.

In the best of situations, the abuser recognizes his or her problem before it becomes a work issue and asks for assistance. In others, the abuser's poor work performance, poor relationship with co-workers and customers, or attendance problems can lead to discovery of a substance abuse problem. Managers, front-line supervisors, human resource personnel, medical staff, and others in the company should be trained to identify and deal with substance abusers.

What You Can Do

Suppose you work with a substance abuser and you know it. What can and should you do? First of all, don't assume that the problem will go away on its own, and don't compromise your own health and safety by putting on blinders. The following tips come from't be an enabler, meaning don't cover for substance abusers, lend them money, or help them conceal poor work performance. Doing so helps them avoid the consequences of their behavior, something they must face if they are to overcome the problem.

If you suspect drug use or trafficking on the job, don't look the other way. Pass the word on to human resources, a supervisor, or security. These contacts are confidential, and in many organizations, the information can be conveyed anonymously.

Don't intervene on your own. Substance abuse is a serious problem that should be handled by professionals.

And finally, don't worry about jeopardizing a substance abuser's job. Many employees hesitate to let management know when they suspect a substance abuse problem for fear that the co-worker will be penalized or lose his or her job. In reality, the co-worker is in far greater jeopardy when you don't report your concern.

Remember that the threat of being fired often provides a potent deterrent to substance abuse and will prompt many drug- and alcohol-troubled workers to accept help when they've previously ignored pleas from family and friends. Abusers who are faced with the possibility of losing their jobs often are motivated to enter and remain in treatment long enough to make fundamental and lasting changes in attitudes and behavior.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

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