Leadership Competencies

A Hard Pill to Swallow: Employee Substance Abuse

An invisible infection is crawling through our workplaces. It’s not the white-walkers from Game of Thrones, nor the zombies from the Walking Dead. It’s a different kind of infection and according to a recent survey by Employers Holdings Inc., one in ten small businesses have had employees dealing with it. And this is just those who have been recorded showing up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the last year. The survey, which polled 502 small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, found that alcohol was the most commonly abused substance (5.3%) with marijuana and prescription painkillers following close behind (5.1%).

These findings are in line with those of other, similar studies. A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are 18.9 million adults classified with drug abuse or dependence, and 52 percent of them are employed. Prescription drug abuse is especially on the rise, with about 20% of the U.S. population reported to have abused prescription drugs.

substance-abuseThis type of substance abuse invariably affects job performance and company health, especially in small companies where fewer employees handle more responsibilities.

“Business owners today are rightfully concerned about the use of illegal or judgment-impairing substances in their workplaces,” says Employers Holdings’ Chief Operating Officer, Stephen V. Festa. “It’s a disturbing trend that we have seen developing over the past several years with the rise in prescription opioids and the increasing legalization of marijuana.”

How Can Substance Abuse Affect Your Company?

Employee substance abuse is both dangerous and expensive, costing U.S. companies an estimated $81 billion annually. Drug and alcohol abusers are more likely to be absent, less productive, and get injuries or cause injuries to others on the job. This costs employers in sick leave, insurance claims, overtime pay, workers compensation, equipment damage, employee turnover, and damage to the company’s reputation.

As Festa puts it, “Employees under the influence of these substances in the workplace not only pose a potential danger to themselves, but also to everyone else around them.”

This seems to be especially the case with prescription drugs. “The Centers for Disease Control has reported that more people die from prescription painkillers than from heroin or cocaine,” Festa said. “Opioid addiction has been linked to decreased worker productivity, as well as making workplaces less safe, prolonging disability claims, and increasing the risk of death from overdoses.”

What Can You Do?

The first defense against substance abuse is formulating a clear policy. Small businesses should have a written policy in place stating that drug and alcohol use will not be tolerated in the workplace. This policy should outline the consequences for incidents of substance abuse, rules regarding alcohol consumption at company events (holiday parties, picnics, etc.), and if your company employs drug testing, the procedures of this testing and the consequences should a failed test arise. But it’s not enough to have a policy in place – your employees need to know about it. Make new hires read and sign this policy before starting work, and consider hosting training sessions to update current employees.

Small business owners may also want to consider instituting an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs assist employees in overcoming alcohol or substance abuse problems that are interfering with work performance. They provide screening, counseling, and referrals to substance abuse clinics. They have been proven effective, with the Gillette Company reporting a 75% decrease in abuse treatment costs after employing an EAP. Small businesses can reduce the costs of EAP implementation by working with other local businesses to jointly offer the services. Another alternative is to provide a list of nearby treatment centers and clinics to employees.

In addition to having these measures in place, business owners should also be able to recognize the signs of drug or alcohol abuse in their employees. According to Cali Estes, a certified drug and alcohol therapist, potential signs of substance abuse include bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, excessive absences, arriving to work late and leaving work early. For more signs of addiction, check out The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’s list of common signs.

Alcohol and drug use is a problem in all businesses, but it can be especially crippling for small businesses, which depend on the integrity and hard work of a small number of employees. Fortunately, putting a strong policy and treatment options in place can effectively mitigate these costs and dangers.

Have more small business tips and trends you think could be added to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author: Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx. Journyx strives to be relentlessly creative and to build tools that help you spend your time on things that matter. After all, time is all we have. Founded in 1996, Journyx offers customers two solutions to reach the highest levels of profitability: Journyx – project, time and expense tracking software – and Journyx PX – resource management software that provides work and financial forecasting for a complete picture of project and budget status, employee time and availability. Connect with Curt on Google+.

Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Curt Finch

Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx. Journyx strives to be relentlessly creative and to build tools that help you spend your time on things that matter. After all, time is all we have. Founded in 1996, Journyx offers customers two solutions to …

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  1. Don Anderson

    June 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    The sad fact is, often these substance abusing employees can become effective efficient employees for the firms that employ them if they had access to treatment. Unfortunately, the small business lacks the financial resources to assist them. More should be done at the state and federal level to insure hat these employees have the opportunity to become productive assets to their companies again.

  2. Companies could also hire a substance abuse prevention specialist like Prevention PLUS. Many folks will self identify or come forward for help if they have relatives with substance abuse, if the topic is presented well.

    • jasonroth

      July 15, 2014 at 10:59 am

      Thanks Chris. Good suggestion for sure.

  3. Donald See

    June 26, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    I lived this, so I can give you some first hand experience information here. After being in an auto accident that caused an illness I had grow rapidly. It was arachnoiditis. I was prescribed oxy-codone and oxy-cottin, and yes I continued to work. Well let me say show up and get paid for doing the same thing over and over again. Don’t get me wrong I wanted to learn new things and I went to classes and took tests. Only passed one test, I could not pass the other twenty. Over and over again I tried to learn, but I could not and I was making fifty K a year I could not believe I was still able to keep my job. I had a vision, like those of us on these drugs do. My vision was to get fired and I made the way work for me. I said the same words that were in my vision that day to a direct report to the president. There is more to this story. Just noty now.

    • jasonroth

      July 15, 2014 at 10:58 am

      Donald, thank you for your open and honest comment about how substance abuse played a role in your professional career.

  4. Shari Bennett Beisenherz

    June 27, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    I think we need to educate employers, many times I have worked around many co-workers that the management did not realize what was going on with their employees, line staff knew. However, management did not what signs to look for.

  5. Donna Tucker

    June 28, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Substance abuse in the workplace is very prevalence no matter the age. Employers should randomly screen employees yearly. Employees place consumers, our community, & peers at jeopardy when this behavior become the norm.

  6. Don, that’s a great point. Many A substance abuse employees are stuck in a cycle of keeping up appearances while dealing with a vicious issue. We do need to educate our leaders to watch for possible signs of drug abuse. By doing so, we can get their employees help at a qualified clinic so that they can get back on track and be productive citizens.

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