Substance abuse is getting worse. First there was the opioid crisis of the 2010s, and now there is the COVID-19 pandemic. The use and abuse of alcohol and drugs is on the rise. In the U.S. there were 71,000 overdose deaths in 2019, a new record, and early indications are that the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse as people turn to drugs to cope with the stress. There are many reasons beyond the pandemic that people turn to drugs, and some of those reasons come from their jobs. That is why it is important to fight substance abuse in the workplace.
How Jobs Contribute to the Problem
There are two main ways that jobs contribute to substance abuse.
- Injuries at Work. Often abuse of opioids begins with a workplace injury. An employee is injured in an accident that requires surgery, for example, and is prescribed pain killers. For vulnerable people, the use of these prescription medications can become habitual and create a drug problem.
- Job Stress: Job stress is a major factor in the use of alcohol and drugs as many people, especially women, may use them to cope. High stress jobs then can be a driver of alcohol and drug consumption that can get out of control.
Fight Substance Abuse in the Workplace
Because substance abuse can often start at work, the workplace would be a good place to address the problem. A three-tiered strategy that is advocated by public health experts is a good way to approach this problem in a way that benefits both employees and employers.
- Primary Prevention: Focus first on managing the underlying causes of injuries and job stress. It begins by creating an organizational climate that is safe both physically and psychologically. A general safety climate encourages practices that encourage safety and discourage unsafe behavior. Managers must focus on safety in their day-to-day supervision to minimize the chances that employees will be injured. At the same time such organizational climates focus attention on the psychological well-being of employees. This means controlling undue stress and making sure that everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Primary prevention is in many ways the most effective strategy because it eliminates the problem before it starts.
- Secondary Prevention: There is a lot we can do to reduce injuries and stress, but we cannot totally eliminate them. The second line of defense is to give employees the tools to deal with the injuries and stress that they encounter. Programs can be provided that provide employees with knowledge and skill that can help them avoid injuries and cope with stress. On the injury side this can be exercise programs that reduce the chances of injuries, and on the stress side it can be stress management programs that teach relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness.
- Tertiary Prevention: No matter how good our primary and secondary efforts, some individuals will be injured, both physically and psychologically, at work. For them organizations should provide adequate services through employee assistance programs (EAPs). These programs can help employees deal with mental health problems that contribute to substance abuse, and when substance abuse problems occur, they can provide treatment.
Why Should Organizations Care?
There are two major reasons that organizations should fight substance abuse in the workplace. First, is the value proposition argument that substance abuse is costly to organizations through errors, lost productivity, and turnover by employees who are afflicted. Substance abuse prevention programs are a sound investment that helps control these costs. Second, there is the ethical argument that if organizations contribute to substance abuse and other problems for employees, it is the responsibility of the employer to do all that can be done to remedy the problem. Organizations that take care of their people will be rewarded by a more committed and effective workforce.