The Effects of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

4 min read · 4 sections
What you will learn:
Reasons workers turn to alcohol and drugs
How to help troubled employees
Treatment options & employee centered programs

One of the characteristic signs of a substance misuse 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 co-workers. 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 Misuse

Rates of alcohol and drug use are different across industries and occupations, affecting blue-collar, middle-class, and white-collar professions alike. According to the National Safety Council, jobs in construction, mining, and some service industries have higher rates of alcohol and substance use disorders, medical conditions characterized by an uncontrollable use of alcohol or other substances despite the negative consequences.1 On the other hand, educators, healthcare professionals, and individuals who work in protective services exhibit the lowest rates of substance use disorders.1 Additionally, many individuals with safety-sensitive jobs—such as truck drivers and air traffic controllers—have high rates of substance use disorders.1  Depending on the profession, factors like loneliness, work stressors, long hours, and pain put some individuals at a greater risk for drug and alcohol misuse.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

While there is little evidence to show that work-related stressors may lead to substance misuse, research does support the notion of stress-induced substance use, which may come from work overload or job insecurity.2 Furthermore, studies indicate a close relationship between stress and alcohol and drug misuse.3

Research that analyzed a number of studies on occupations found that some professionals in diverse categories—from healthcare professionals to truck drivers—dealt with the demands of their jobs with alcohol and drug misuse.3 In one study, truck drivers, for instance, reported that the constant pressure to deliver cargo on time, unpredictable weather conditions, loneliness, and depression led them to misuse drugs to cope.3 The same analysis found that younger workers tended to deal with work pressures with alcohol and drugs. In fact, younger male workers have higher rates of substance use disorders overall.1 Research found no association between work pressure and alcohol and drug misuse among 2,902 workers aged 60 and older.3


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Other Factors for Substance Misuse in the Workplace

Another factor that can lead to alcohol use in the workplace includes a workplace culture that supports alcohol use as a normative behavior. While this affects a number of occupations, research indicates that the prevalence of risky drinking seems to take place in male-dominated industries, where the workforce is 70% or more male.4 In fact, globally, alcohol-related problems with workers tend to be in the construction, utilities, manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation industries.4 In the construction field, for instance, one in five workers has a substance use disorder.1

Research also shows that restaurant workers have a high rate of problem drinking.5 For instance, 12% of food service workers engage in heavy drinking (drinking five or more drinks in an occasion at least once per week).5 One study found that after-work socializing among food service co-workers often involves going to another restaurant or bar to drink.5

Other factors that may lead to substance misuse at work include physically demanding work, alcohol availability, isolated work, a lack of supervision, low visibility at work, and a high level of employee mobility during the workday.4

A national survey of the U.S. workforce found that 15.3% of workers reported to working under the influence of alcohol, and 2.9% reported being under the influence of illicit drugs on the job.6

Substance Misuse and Problems in the Workplace

Besides negatively impacting the lives of the person addicted to drugs or alcohol—and their family and friends—substance use negatively affects U.S. industry in several ways, including:7

  • A loss of productivity and job performance.
  • Workplace accidents and injuries.
  • Employee absenteeism.
  • High turnover.
  • Low employee morale.
  • Theft.
  • Conflict among employees or with supervisors.

In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 388 of the 4,786 fatal work injuries that year resulted from unintentional overdose from the use of non-medical drugs at work.8 While overdose deaths at work occurred in a variety of industries, the three most prevalent included transportation and warehousing, construction, and healthcare and social assistance.8

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