Substance Abuse and the Workplace

substance abuse and the workplace

On August 12, 2019 (11 – 12 pm, Grand Ballrooms 7-8) I gave a talk on substance abuse and the workplace at the Workers’ Compensation Institute National Conference, Orlando World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida. The conference is designed for professionals who are concerned with worker health and safety. My talk was one hour of an all-day session on substance abuse and the opioid crisis organized by the NIOSH-funded Sunshine Education and Research Center (ERC) at the University of South Florida. My talk covered the scope of the problem, how organizations contribute to substance abuse, and some solutions to minimize those contributions.

Scope of the Problem

More than half of Americans are at least occasional consumers (users) of alcohol and other substances that have psychological effects. Although most people use such substances responsibly and in moderation, a sizeable number will become abusers where their use of substances becomes excessive and interferes with their health and lives. Of most concern is alcohol abuse that affects an estimated 15.1 million and opioid abuse that affects an estimated 11.4 million people. The costs to society of the abuse problem is nearly $1 trillion including costs of healthcare, lost productivity, and legal issues.

Substance Abuse and the Workplace

There are a number of effects that substance abuse has on the workplace. Effects on employees include:

  1. Calling in sick or coming to work late.
  2. Accidents and injuries on the job.
  3. Fatigue and falling asleep on the job.
  4. Coming to work hungover.
  5. Making poor decisions due to cognitive impairment.
  6. Turnover–either voluntary or being fired.

Effects on organizations include:

  1. Poor customer service or customer service failures.
  2. Low morale among coworkers.
  3. Lower productivity of units with a substance abuser.
  4. Lower work quality.
  5. Increased employee theft.

Contribution of the Workplace

There are two main ways in which organizations contribute to substance abuse.

  • Accidents and injuries that result in significant pain can lead to the legitimate prescription of pain killers and subsequent abuse of those pain killers. This accounts for much of the opioid crisis as drug abuse began with an injury. Sometimes individuals who develop a drug dependence will gravitate to illicit drugs, such as heroin, when physicians will no longer prescribe pain killers.
  • Stress on the job can contribute to substance use that results in alcohol/drug dependence and abuse. For some people, substance use is a short-term means of coping with stressful events, but jobs that are excessively stressful can increase someone’s risk for substance abuse.

Possible Solutions

There are three areas in which organizations can help in reducing substance abuse.

  1. Primary Prevention: Minimize accidents and injuries and minimize stress. Accidents/injuries can be reduced through proper ergonomic design of spaces and equipment, and use of safety gear. Safety behavior can be encouraged by developing a good safety climate. Stress can be reduced by providing adequate resources to accomplish the job, assigning reasonable workloads, and building a supportive climate at work. Supervisor support for dealing with safety issues and managing stressful work is also key.
  2. Secondary Prevention: Provide employees with the tools they need to do the job safely and manage the stress of the job. This includes training in safety, the skills needed in performing the job, and in stress management (e.g., relaxation training).
  3. Tertiary Prevention: These are resources provided to employees who are injured or are struggling psychologically to deal with demands of the job. Much of this is provided through Employee Assistance Programs that provide services for dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse problems.

Holistic Approach to Substance Abuse and the Workplace

The best approach to dealing with substance abuse and the workplace is a three-prong program that incorporates primary, secondary, and tertiary initiatives. Be sure the design of the job, physical layout, organization of work are optimized so that individuals are able to perform their jobs efficiently and safely. Be sure to give employees the tools and training they need to perform their jobs and manage demands. Provide resources for employees who are struggling with mental health issues, personal problems, and substance abuse. The benefit of taking this approach will not only be reducing substance abuse risk, but it can lead to enhanced organizational performance as well.

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