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Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Effects, Impacts & Treatment Options

12 Sections
7 min read
What you will learn:
Reasons workers turn to alcohol and drugs
How to help troubled employees
Treatment options & employee centered programs
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One of the characteristic signs of a substance abuse problem is the deterioration of workplace performance. The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral impairment that results from drug or alcohol use can affect productivity, morale, and even the safety of other coworkers. The cost of addiction in the workforce is usually measured financially, but it can also refer to more subjective losses, which can change the entire nature of an office.

Job Stress and Substance Abuse

Rates of alcohol use are different across industries and occupations. Jobs that have higher rates of stress, or that expose employees to greater degrees of personal harm or danger, especially blue-collar workers, are more likely to compel workers to use drugs or alcohol to alleviate their fatigue, depression, or fear. For example, truck drivers battle loneliness; correctional officers and law enforcement have to deal with hostile and menacing individuals every day. Air traffic controllers work grueling shifts, controlling the fates of literally hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth in equipment in second-to-second communications and coordination. Physical laborers, such as miners, timber workers, and construction workers, are subject to any number of physical risks to their wellbeing and often have to turn up for work nursing long-term injuries. Under threat of mechanization and outsourcing, they may force themselves to work beyond natural limitations, again using drugs or alcohol to mask pain or mental distress.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

Even traditionally white-collar jobs are not immune to unhealthy amounts of stress, especially in an era of national and global economic insecurity. Social media and smartphones have extended working hours to nights, weekends, and holidays. In April 2015, a 22-year-old technology and media analyst jumped to his death in San Francisco after complaining that he had not slept in two days due to his job stress and isolation. The following month, a 29-year-old investment banker committed suicide in the same way, after pressure at work and coping mechanism of drugs and alcohol came to a head. The man’s father told the press that his son was under stress and “probably resorted to illegal drugs.”

Grueling working conditions are not limited to the loggers and miners of rural America. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the investment bankers and analysts at some of the most powerful financial institutions in the country turned to drugs (both legal and illegal) to ease the pain of having jobs that took over their personal lives. PBS interviewed Kevin Roose, the author of a book that profiled eight such bankers who plied their trade on Wall Street after the financial crash, where these men and women (as young as 22 years old) had to work upwards of 100 hours a week without being able to see their friends and family.

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The Miserable 20s with Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse

Roose pointed out that despite that grind, people in that profession (and in that industry) receive little to no support, either because of the negative perception that line of work has or because they make over $100,000 a year. But that kind of paycheck takes a toll; “their lives essentially belong to their employers,” Roose said.

One banker told Roose that “it’s not the hours that kill you, it’s the lack of control over the hours,” saying that the schedule was like being an on-call doctor.
When the office needed him to come in, whether it was during a weekend or a long holiday, he had to drop whatever he was doing and get to his desk. “It’s a miserable way to spend your 20s,” he said.

The misery is countered by Adderall, a prescription drug that is given to people with ADHD to help them focus and concentrate. That property is in high demand among college students, who take Adderall recreationally (and dangerously) in order to pull all-nighters and not be mentally drained the next morning. Similarly, bankers and analysts take Adderall to stay up longer and work harder. Roose found that employees of big financial institutions tend to drink more than they should, partly to cope with the stresses of their job and partly because of the culture of the job. Employees are expected to have drinks with their boss and their clients, often consuming massive amounts of alcohol as gamesmanship.

Obviously, such hard drinking and drug abuse can cause health problems, some of them quite serious. Roose says that high-end banking “is a really unhealthy industry,” due to the combination of unforgiving working conditions, and the custom of drug and alcohol consumption to put on a strong, macho face to impress clients and intimidate competitors.

After the Great Recession, and controversial movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, which sensationalized (and perhaps glamorized) the investment banker lifestyle as one of unfettered hedonism, Roose wrote that many Wall Street companies are trying to tone things down, going so far as to “make junior analysts take the weekend off and forcing mandatory vacation days.”

Overall, single male workers up to 29 years of age who work in a number of varying fields (e.g., hospitality, manufacturing, retail, financial services, mining, and construction) are the most likely to engage in consumption of drugs or alcohol as a result of the stress they experience because of the nature of their jobs and the resultant culture of their workspaces.

Drinking with the Job

Drinking with the boss (and, in some places, drinking heavily) is part of the job of being in a high-risk, high-reward profession like an investment analyst, but this trend is happening far beyond Wall Street. The Wall Street Journal writes of how “the keg is becoming the new watercooler,” as more officers are using alcohol to recompense (and entice) their employees for working longer and staying later at their desks. An advertising agency in Boston installed a beer-vending machine, a sign of other white-collar industries trying to blur the lines between personal and professional bubbles.

A media agency in New York provides beers to its employees (helpfully provided by the alcohol sponsors), and the founder of the company admits that the practice of regularly allowing workers to drink after their workday “may even keep them at their desks longer.” Light drinking brings workers together and takes the edge off punishing workloads and deadlines by making them feel respected and welcome, but he draws the line at intoxication.

Some companies present their onsite alcohol as a job perk, on par with health and dental benefits, making themselves attractive to candidates fresh out of school or a previous job.

Employment lawyers are concerned that company-sponsored alcohol in a high-stakes setting of a law office or marketing firm sends the wrong messages. Employees who don’t want to drink with their coworkers (or don’t want to drink at all) can feel excluded and marginalized; long nights, stress, and alcohol can plant the seeds for accusations of assault, sexual harassment, or even rape; and unless employees are given a place to sleep off their post-drink works, the ever-present danger of driving under the influence looms.

If something goes wrong and liability becomes an issue, the company itself may be held legally accountable. As a result, some workplaces are amending their insurance policies to cover alcohol-related incidents that take place on company property.

Longer Working Hours and the Risk of Addiction

The director of a career startup company in New York equates this culture to those found at fraternity houses on campus, where there is a strong expectation to drink (and to drink heavily) as part of the bonding process. In tech companies, where the workforce is predominantly male, young, urban, and white, employees who do not fit into that image can drink for unhealthy reasons: to fit in or out of fear of being left out.

There is an inherent risk with introducing a catalyst like alcohol into a work environment that may not be naturally conducive to the effects of drinking. Employees who have to work in isolated areas, or who find themselves the only one at the office on a weekend, may drink out of boredom, depression, or loneliness, which the Huffington Post calls “the road to addiction.” In 2015, the BMJ journal wrote of how long working hours are linked to increased use of alcohol. Workers who log over 48 hours of work every week have an 11 percent higher chance of engaging in risky drinking than workers who perform the standard 40 hours of work a week (even though, according to Gallup, most Americans work 47 hours a week as the new average). For workers who spent an average of 55 hours a week at the office or in the field, the rate of problematic drinking went up to 13 percent.

Work Week Alcohol Consumption

The journal found that male employees who worked in excess of 48 hours tended to drink over 21 alcoholic beverages in a week; female employees drank more than 14 drinks in a single week. Even though many companies have policies in place that limit working hours (including overtime work), employees and managers are compelled to go over those limits, “to achieve faster promotions, salary increases, and more control over work and employment.”

Researchers acknowledged that the stress of strenuous and long-term work can be eased through the use of alcohol, but the pressures of doing almost 50 hours of work a week can lead to:

  • Increased sick leave
  • Deterioration in workplace performance
  • Occupational injuries
  • Decreased decision-making skills

The BMJ researchers noted that since more than half the adult population spend so much time in the office, “the workplace is an important setting for the prevention of alcohol misuse.” An assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health wrote in an editorial that “long working hours is an exposure [to more alcohol consumption].”

Losing the Work-Life Balance

Long and stressful hours at the office, with or without other coworkers (who may themselves be working long hours), can have negative effects on physical and emotional health. Business Insider says this is a sign of a “toxic workplace,” an office or job that is unhealthy and causes physical or mental damage to the people who work there, which then usually spill over into employees’ personal lives. In the United Kingdom, 43 percent of sick days were taken due to stress; a researcher at the University of Toronto wrote that half of adult workers “bring their work home,” both in terms of actual job tasks that need to be done (or by virtue of being on call to help clients and patients) and the pressure and frustration of their responsibilities impeding on their time with family.

Stressful Work Environments in the UK

As the work-life balance scale is tipped ever more in favor of work, many people develop symptoms of depression or an anxiety disorder: mood swings, a lack of enjoyment of hobbies and recreational pursuits, and using alcohol, drugs or prescription medication to overcome negative feelings. People have been known to go work in the morning still under the effects of the drugs and alcohol they consumed the previous evening; the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that people with a high blood alcohol level will still be impaired up to 12 hours after the last drink. The impairment could resemble the symptoms of a hangover: sensitivity to sound and light, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea, all of which will impede even the most basic of work expectations. Workers can be hurt as a result of their slow reaction times, cause injury to others, and cause other kinds of general damage to the company. This is backed up by the American Council for Drug Education, which says that employees who use alcohol and drugs are more at risk for performing poorly at work and having trouble in the workplace than people who drink moderately and don’t use drugs.

Demanding Jobs and the Cost of Addiction in the Workforce

Employees who work in stressful environments may be especially susceptible to the pitfalls of addiction, an example of which is found in a case study of people who provide support for victims of domestic abuse; an employee and her manager both struggled with alcohol abuse due to the “demanding” nature of their jobs. Prison guards are subject to such extreme amounts of pressure that guards would come to work “hammered every day,” in the words of a warden at a facility in Long Island, New York. Today, the incidence of that happening is much rarer, but rates of substance abuse among correctional officers are much higher than those of the general population and even returning combat veterans.

Increasing levels of job stress and long working hours are borne out from figures tallied by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which show that between 2008 and 2012, “an annual average of 8.7 percent of full-time workers aged 18 to 64 used alcohol heavily in the past month.” As many as 8.6 percent of employees had used illegal drugs in that same timeframe, and 9.5 percent of America’s workforce was “dependent on, or abused, alcohol or illegal drugs in the past year.”

With so many workers bringing their problems home and then bringing their addictions to work, the result is that workplaces are seeing many more “negative work behaviors” (such as absenteeism) and frequent job changes. Both cost companies time and money, in terms of lost productivity and the task of hiring and training new employees. If there are issues of dangerous or inappropriate behavior that result from impaired cognitive and behavioral skills, healthcare costs and legal fees are factored into the dollar amount. As far back as 2001, a survey conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that drug use cost the country as much as $121 billion, most of it (60 percent) due to lost workplace productivity.

In 2004, a report issued by the Surgeon General found that alcohol abuse among employees cost companies $25 billion and drugs cost $11 billion. CNN Money wrote in 2014 that every year, prescription painkiller abuse costs companies up to $42 billion.

Helping Troubled Employees with Substance Abuse

What can companies do to help employees with workplace-related substance abuse problems? Workforce spoke with Julie Stich, the associate vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, whose organization conducted a survey in late 2016 about what benefits organizations could provide in terms of mental health and addiction. The survey of 344 companies across the US and Canada revealed that 62 percent of companies felt that depression is “somewhat-to-very prevalent” in their offices; around 50 percent said that there was a prevalence of alcohol abuse among their employees, with 32 percent saying that workers were addicted to prescription drugs and 29 percent reporting that workers were addicted to recreational substances. Two out of three companies that responded to the survey said that addiction and/or mental health problems had a negative impact in their respective workforces in terms of absenteeism or tardiness, overall job performance, and physical health of employees.

Workplace Related Substance Abuse Stats

Thirty-one percent of organizations said that there were no policies in place to combat the work-related abuse of prescription opioids by their employees. Most companies have some kind of a wellness program in mind, but Julie Stich felt that addiction in the workforce is best tackled through an employee assistance program (EAP).

Employee Assistance Programs

The Office of Personnel Management explains that employee assistance programs (EAPs) are work-based initiatives that offer free and private assessments, temporary counseling, and referrals and follow-up services to employees who are having personal, mental health, and/or substance abuse problems that may be related to their jobs. EAP counselors work as consultants to managers and supervisors to identify and address the emotional and mental needs of employees, especially as they pertain to drug and alcohol abuse, stress, grief, and psychological disorders (such as depression and anxiety). They even help if outside issues, like family conflict, are causing problems with job performance and relations with other coworkers. Employee assistance programs and their counselors have to be active in preventing issues of workplace violence, trauma, and other situations that can endanger the functioning of an organization and the wellbeing of its employees. In the event of a drug- or mental health-related incident, EAP counselors can provide on-the-spot counseling for the witnesses or survivors to ensure that they can deal with the stress in a healthy manner and not resort to drugs or alcohol to cope.

Even when there is no immediate danger present, EAP counselors can provide educational outreaches to employees and management during a “lunch and learn” event or by inviting speakers who can talk to office staff about the warning signs of mental health stress, workaholism, or addiction.

Lunch and learn programs are useful for creating a positive office culture and therefore a good way of introducing the difficult but important topic of workplace safety.

Encouragingly, a number of companies responding to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey reported the existence of EAPs; 91 percent said that some EAP services were offered, and 38 percent said their wellness programs covered mental health or addiction (albeit not to as extensive a degree as those with EAPs).

Work Benefits Stats

Reaching out to Affected Workers

However, even if a company has an employee assistance program in place, there is no guarantee that workers will make use of it. In certain job cultures, admitting a mental health problem or asking for help with one could result in a loss of respect, which may mean lost opportunities for career advancement or even being downgraded or demoted. In situations like this, vulnerable employees may be reluctant to make use of a company’s EAP, reasoning that living without help is better than inviting scrutiny and ridicule.

Stich suggests that employers should frequently communicate to all their employees (not just the ones with the most evident or likely issues) that EAPs are available and confidential. Providing that measure of privacy may compel at-risk employees to ask for help if they can be reassured that EAP counselors will protect their identifying information.

Employee assistance programs are also useful in providing a way for workers who had to take time off to resume their job responsibilities. Stich points out that management tends not to think about how best to facilitate an employee’s return, focusing more on ensuring that the company runs smoothly instead. This responsibility would fall to an EAP counselor who can work to eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental health and drug abuse. Psychological and addiction conditions are often greeted with silence, awkwardness, and isolation, which can be debilitating for an employee returning to their place of work.

To better ease the transition, Stich recommends that employers offer a flexible, gradual process for coming back to the office, like reduced hours or a work-from-home arrangement.

Management, in combination with EAP consultants, can talk with other coworkers before the employee in question resumes their duties, dispelling myths and misunderstandings about drug addiction or mental health. The idea is to create a positive and healthy office environment, so the causes behind the substance abuse or job stress are controlled, reduced, or even eliminated, but this would require a company-wide effort and change. Lastly, EAP consultants themselves can follow up with the employee after the return to ensure that the transition is going well and that the employee’s livelihood can be restored.

What Can a Supervisor Do?

Not all organizations are in a position to set up an employee assistance program, so it can fall to a supervisor to deal with addiction in their workforce. USA Today suggests that this should be done carefully; unfounded accusations could be the basis for legal action, but collecting evidence of poor work performance, absenteeism or tardiness, and negative work relationships might either compel the employee to confess to job-related substance abuse or reveal other reasons behind any troubles or difficulties in the office.

Supervisors should schedule a private face-to-face meeting, make the meeting more about the job performance and not the suspicion of substance abuse (unless drinking or drug use has been definitively confirmed), and anticipate that the employee will try to deny the existence of a problem, which is a “core symptom of addiction.” If the employee refuses help, the supervisor should continue to document problems while securing the services of a professional interventionist to lead a work-based intervention.

It is critical that the supervisor should avoid any actions that be seen as a form of encouragement or acceptance of the drug- or alcohol-related behavior, such as covering up for the employee, delegating work responsibilities to other coworkers, or doing anything will allow the substance abuse problems to continue unabated. In the same way that family members will have to say “no” to a loved one who begs them for more money to buy drugs or alcohol, a supervisor must continue to enforce professional expectations on all employees equally and especially an employee struggling with addiction. This will compel the affected employee to either clean up or admit to the problem.

To that end, it is important that employers be supportive to all workers. This could be in the form of showing compassion and empathy, but also through offering comprehensive health plans, wellness programs, and employee assistance programs that open the doors for counseling, treatment, rehabilitation, aftercare, and education. Such a comprehensive framework will not come easily or cheaply; but for stressful job environments, where employees have to work long nights or in chronic pain, knowing that systems are in place to help the people who most need it will contribute to the development of a positive and successful workforce.

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