Substance abuse is a pandemic as serious as COVID-19 in terms of the human and monetary toll. The abuse of alcohol and drugs is due to many factors from all aspects of a person’s life. What often goes unnoticed is that for some people substance abuse can begin at work, and for those struggling with this problem, work can make it worse.
The Substance Abuse Problem
Substance abuse means that someone is drinking alcohol or taking drugs to such an extent that it has physical, psychological and social consequences. Such a person can have a psychological and often physical dependence on the substance that can interfere with normal life functioning. This can lead to a number of problems for the individual in all walks of life.
Health. Excessive drinking or drug use can lead to a number of physical ailments and ultimately death, either directly from overdose, or indirectly by contributing to disease.
Legal Problems. Intoxication can create many legal problems including arrests for driving while impaired (DUI), public intoxication, and violent behavior. The use of illegal drugs can lead to drug arrests.
Relationship Problems. Substance abuse can strain relationships with family and friends, and is often a contributing factor in divorce.
Work Problems. Often individuals with serious substance abuse problems will have difficulties at work due to absence, fatigue, intoxication at work, and poor performance. This can lead to disciplinary action, and ultimately to being terminated from employment.
Substance abuse can get in the way of normal life functioning, and can make it impossible for individuals to achieve their life goals.
Substance Abuse Can Begin at Work
For many employees, the job can contribute, or even be the origin, of substance abuse problems. There are two main paths by which this happens.
- Workplace Injury. Each year more than 2.5 million workers are injured on the job in the U.S. alone. In some cases the injury will require surgery; in others the person will experience pain that can become chronic. For severe pain, physicians might prescribe pain-killers such as opioids that can be habit forming. Although most people might be able to take a round of pain killers to get through post-surgery discomfort with no problem, a significant number will become dependent on them. This can be a particular problem with chronic recurring pain. In a real sense, when an employee is injured in the workplace, substance abuse can begin at work.
- Job Stress. Jobs can be stressful and even traumatic for some. Those stressful job conditions can lead people to use alcohol and other drugs as a means of coping. While having a drink after work to unwind is not a problem, for some the drinking can become excessive. It is not that stress at work will lead to a nondrinker taking up drinking (or drug use), but rather that for those who drink, stress can lead them to drink more.
What Can Employers Do?
The short answer is that employers need to take care of their employees. Its people are an organizations most precious resource that need to be treated as such. Organizations need to do all that is possible to keep employees both physically and psychologically safe from harm. This means creating a safe climate at work by instituting policies and procedures to promote physical safety from accidents and paying attention to risks for musculoskeletal disorders like back aches and carpal tunnel syndrome due to overexertion. It also means paying attention to the stress that employees encounter. Workplace stress cannot be entirely eliminated but there is a lot that organizations can do to manage it by reducing unnecessary stress and providing support for employees to cope positively with challenges on the job. Creating safe workplaces can go a long way to reducing the contribution of the workplace to substance abuse.