Addiction in the Workplace

It may not be obvious at first, but the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse can seriously affect an organisation. Both the addicted employee(s) and even those who don’t abuse drugs can be impacted. The bottom line of the business can be significantly affected, as can overall productivity levels. This can only be expected when there are decreases in the quality of work, increases in absenteeism and high turnover rates.

Since addiction can be such a massive problem in the workplace, what can employers and employees do about it? We answer that and more below.

Addiction in the workplace: What you need to know

If you or a loved one are suffering a chronic or severe level of substance use disorder, you could lose your job as a direct result of your drug or alcohol problem. Your use of addictive substances may negatively affect your job performance and attendance for some time before your employer decides to let you go. Please don’t wait for your addiction to get to that stage before you start seeking help.

When employees abuse drugs and alcohol, the number of occupational fatalities and injuries goes up. This can affect the health and wellbeing of all employees and not just the addicted worker. While it may not be obvious to everyone in the office, safety concerns on the job can be increased due to the short-term residual cognitive impairments and lethargy that tend to follow heavy drinking the night before.

Substance abuse amongst employees can also impact the culture and attitudes of a company, which can be particularly damaging if it works hard to preserve its reputation. What follows is a loss of trust and reduction in engagement, motivation and morale. In terms of direct financial costs to the organisation, the employer may have to deal with increased workers’ compensation pay-outs and medical claims. More frequent claims lead to increased premiums, which the employer has to pay.

There is also the possibility of an addicted employee stealing from the organisation or from other employees in order to fund their addiction. These problems may take on various forms and affect businesses in different ways. They can affect businesses of all sizes, both large and small. While some industries may be more susceptible to these issues, they can affect any business in any industry.

Industries most affected by substance abuse in the workplace

It has been discovered that people who work in mining and construction have the highest level of alcohol consumption. As for those who are most likely to abuse drugs, that applies to people who work in the hospitality and recreation industries. Factors that affect the prevalence of drug and alcohol use amongst workers include gender, age, geography and wages.

Younger adults are more likely to abuse substances than older adults and men are more likely to abuse drugs than women. That means industries with a higher percentage of younger adults or males are more likely to be affected by substance abuse amongst employees. The substances abused include alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs. Heavy drinking constitutes consuming more than four drinks in a single day on five separate occasions, within the same month.

Drug abuse is as prevalent amongst healthcare professionals as it is the general population. Interestingly, doctors are more likely than their patients to abuse prescription drugs. The difference lies in the reasons for engaging in substance abuse. While many people misuse prescription drugs for the fun of it, medical professionals tend to do so to manage stressful situations, emotional distress and physical pain.

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The type of doctor in question also matters; for instance, emergency room doctors and psychiatrists are most likely to use drugs, as indicated in a study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases. The 1999 study also found that surgeons were the least likely to abuse substances. It can be frightening to learn that doctors engage in substance abuse and even more so when surgeons who misuse drugs report making major medical errors.

Lawyers also tend to be affected by alcohol use disorders due to the enormous amounts of stress they have to face, especially when they first start out. People who work in the hospitality and food services industry tend to abuse substances of various kinds to stay awake during shifts or relieve stress. Workers in mining and construction may abuse substances due to chronic pain, aches, soreness and stress from unpleasant work environments, long hours and intense labour.

Managers, promotional agents, athletes, entertainers and others who work in the arts, entertainment and recreation spaces could abuse drugs due to pressure from work, high turnover, long hours and a workplace culture that is conducive to illicit drug use. As an employer or employee, you need to recognise the risk factors that lead to substance abuse so you can take adequate prevention measures.

The effects of drugs and alcohol at work

One of the most crucial effects of substance abuse in the workplace is the increased costs, but of course there are many other negative effects. These include the increase of toxicity of the working environment, with a higher number of conflicts and deteriorated social relations at work. You may find that work is not as organised as it should be or the workload is not evenly distributed. There will likely be an increase in absenteeism and sick leave, as well as fatalities and accidents.

A 2007 study by Norwich Union found that 85% of employees who had been drunk or had a hangover at work affirmed that their performance at work had been affected in a number of ways, including making lots of mistakes, doing the bare minimum, feeling sleepy, not being able to concentrate and being less productive. Employers are not unaware of these problems, as 77% indicated that they thought alcohol was the primary threat to the well-being of their employees.

In 2008, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that alcohol-related problems in the workplace cause as many as 14 million working days to be lost each year. As of February 2008, that cost the UK an estimated £2 billion. While absenteeism and sick leave can cause a working day to be lost, time can also be lost due to workers’ lack of productivity.

Substance abuse can cause 2.5 times more absenteeism and lower the productivity of your business by as much as one-third. This is bad news for any organisation, regardless of its size or the industry within which it operates. The overall morale in an office environment can also be reduced, due to changes in the behaviour of just one or two people who abuse substances.

Ensuring that substance abuse is prevented and taken care of as soon as possible is the duty of both the employers and workers. It doesn’t benefit anyone if the company loses money or spends precious time dealing with disciplinary actions.

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The dangers of workplace substance abuse to employees

Addiction wears many faces. While it can take on the form that you might see on TV, it can also look very different from what you might expect. Whether you’re engaged in the abuse of prescription drugs, hard drugs or alcohol, a serious drug problem can sneak up on you at any time. You might reach the point of addiction and continue to function at a high level, but substance abuse can still affect your energy levels, performance, drive and focus, before eventually affecting your ability to perform well at work.

Many drugs impact the brain’s dopamine receptors and cause various changes. If you abuse these substances for a prolonged period of time, the stress system in your brain can become dysregulated, changing the way you react. You may become more stressed in normal situations or exhibit behaviour typically associated with addiction, such as temper changes, mood swings, anger and agitation.

At work, your level of performance in high stress environments is bound to be affected, whether you have to face a deadline or make a presentation in a meeting. The more you use drugs, the more likely you are to develop dependence or even addiction. If that happens, you’re more likely to think about the drug you’re abusing than your work. In short, you might be more concerned about your next opportunity to get ‘high’.

Your co-workers may also be affected directly or indirectly by your substance abuse or addiction. If you exhibit violent behaviour or any other negative manifestation of drug use, it could contribute to lower morale in an office environment. If you have to be absent from work or take sick leave, your co-workers may have to deal with a heavier workload. Other employees can also lose money if you take from them in order to fund your addiction.

The high cost of drug addiction in the workplace

The majority of individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol have some form of employment. Given that addiction tends to impact those around you, your co-workers and employer will likely be affected as much as your family and friends, especially since you spend most of your time at work. Addiction can be very costly for all parties in the workplace, from employers and managers to your co-workers.

Monetary costs are perhaps the most serious consequence of employee drug addiction, even if some organisations may not realise it to begin with. Organisations with serious drug addiction problems in the workplace lose money due to employees producing a lower quality of work, using more sick time, staying away from work more often, stealing from the company or from colleagues and reducing productivity levels, as well as high turnover rates of staff.

With the prevalence of substance abuse in the workplace comes an increase in the danger of occupational fatalities and injuries. An organisation might have to spend a lot of money fixing these problems if they occur. There is also the lost time and reduced productivity that tend to follow such occurrences.

A company may also have to spend money dealing with legal issues if an employee happens to treat co-workers or customers poorly. If the company’s brand is damaged in the process, the loss of sales, years of building a solid reputation and the costs of managing the crisis can turn out to be enormous.

If you’re an employer or employee who notices that a worker may have a problem with drugs, it is best to bring it up and address the issue as soon as possible. The potential damage that can be caused by substance abuse will only increase the longer the problem is ignored.

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Identifying alcohol or drug abuse in the workplace

There is no doubt that substance abuse is a serious problem in the workplace. It can cause an organisation to lose out in several ways and can negatively affect the work of other employees within the same environment as a worker who abuses drugs or alcohol. This is a problem that must be controlled and one of the best ways to do this is to identify abuse as soon as possible. By spotting abuse before it spirals out of control, a good deal of damage can be prevented.

One of the biggest warning signs of substance abuse is sudden changes in behaviour. If you notice that your employee or co-worker does not show up for work without any notice – only to call in sick later – you should become suspicious. Of course, anyone can be sick, but if this happens more than a few times, you may want to investigate. The same applies if they start coming in to work late. Even before you hire anyone, look into why they have continued to lose jobs in the past.

Addiction is costly; anyone who is deep into their addiction will spend a good chunk of their money on alcohol or drugs. If your employee or co-worker seems to have a persistent and chronic need for money, you may have reason to become suspicious. They may not approach their employer for money, but could ask co-workers instead and may even build relationships solely for the purpose of borrowing money.

Frequent visits to the restroom or any other private space on the premises may be an indication that an employee or co-worker is taking drugs at work. They may need to inject, snort, or ingest the drugs, or they might pass out or sleep off the effects. Other signs include physical ones like watery eyes, red eyes, poor grooming, runny nose and shaking hands. Personality changes indicative of substance abuse may take the form of irritability, apathy and moodiness.

Signs of drug abuse

Different drugs affect people in different ways, but there are signs to look out for which can indicate that a worker is abusing a substance. The first indicator to pay attention to should be physical signs. Some of the most common include clenching of the jaw, a decline or change in grooming, sudden weight loss or gain, impaired cognition or tremors, slurred speech, hyperactivity, strange smells, watery or bloodshot eyes and falling asleep at odd times, amongst others.

Changes in behaviour can also be an indicator for drug abuse, as can psychological signs. However, behavioural signs can be tricky, as they may be changes that could be attributed to another reason besides substance abuse. For instance, you may attribute a co-worker’s irritability to drug addiction, when they are actually going through marital problems.

Another indicator is changes in the individual’s performance at work. If their performance has seemed to drop or they seem to have lost interest or motivation, there may be a problem. Changes like this could happen to anyone, but if other signs are present, you might need to pay closer attention. Look out for traits like nervousness, anxiety, paranoia, dishonesty and outbursts, as these are possible indicators of a drug problem.

Isolation and disinterest in social interactions are also red flags that may indicate a problem, especially if the employee in question wasn’t always that way. If you’re not sure at first, you could be onto something if you notice that these signs seem to only worsen over time. This is because addiction becomes more severe as drug use persists. The sooner proper action is taken, the better.

What to do if you suspect someone is using illegal substances

Perhaps you believe an employee is misusing drugs because all the signs are there. The next question becomes ‘What should you do next?’ A situation like this can be risky, because you don’t want to make false accusations or violate a person’s privacy. It may seem like a good idea to wait and look out for more convincing signs, but every moment wasted may be costing the organisation. It is best to be proactive instead.

Look more closely at the signs, especially those that go beyond performance issues alone. While you are not expected to be an expert at recognising signs of drug abuse, looking for patterns can help paint a more convincing picture. As you begin to notice these signs, start documenting them immediately. Maintaining specific records of your employees’ performance, attitudes and behaviours can be very useful when you’re ready to take action or speak with them.

As you document these behaviours, you may not be able to glean any valuable insight on your own, but it could help to call a drug counsellor or doctor. A professional can help determine whether you have good reason to be worried or are not in fact dealing with a case of drug abuse. If they believe it could be a substance abuse case, they could suggest the possible course of action for treatment.

As a boss, it may feel like the right thing to do to threaten your staff about their substance abuse, but that likely won’t help at all. Approach them as a concerned colleague who would like to help them get treatment. Present them with a plan for recovery and state what role you intend to play. Once you’ve done all you can to get the person the help they need, it’s up to them to take action. If they don’t, you can always enforce the company’s disciplinary rules.

Your employees and addiction: Why you should address addiction as an employer

Addiction is not a personal problem, but something that affects families and society as a whole, including the workplace. At first, it may seem that a drop in an employee’s performance is all there is to it, but addiction in the workplace can cost your organisation dear. Even when an employee falls into the ‘high-performing’ category, you should be concerned as an employer.

The costs of addiction in the workplace can range from things like the cost of lateness to work, disability claims, poor performance, increased workplace accidents and absenteeism to the cost of having to replace an employee (if it eventually comes to that). There is also the possibility of losing money directly if the employee in question steals from the organisation in order to fund their addiction.

Significant drops in the productivity of an employee can affect your bottom-line. The mental health of your workers is therefore very important if they are to perform optimally. By doing your bit as an employer and ensuring that any member of staff who needs treatment gets it at the right time, you will be protecting your business. Yes, it will cost money to get them treated, but you will make that back when they are able to do their job to the best of their ability.

Another reason you should address addiction as an employer is so that you actually do more than take care of that single employee – you’ll also be taking care of their family as well. While money is important, it shouldn’t be the only thing holding the employer-employee bond together. Ensuring that your staff get the professional help they need when they need it is a way of showing you care about investing in their future.

How drug addiction affects employee morale

There is a good chance other members of your workforce will be impacted negatively if you have employees who abuse drugs. Addiction can cause users to behave in an unpredictable manner. Someone who is addicted to an illicit drug may be constantly irritated, exhibit mood swings and could display aggressive behaviour occasionally.

Human beings cannot help being affected by the behaviour of others around them, so a few employees can actually lower the morale of colleagues. Your company culture may suffer as well and that can be particularly problematic. Having some employees display erratic behaviour, be less productive or frequently absent can cause other workers to become resentful. It’s unfair to the rest of your workplace if you don’t address the problem.

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When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s likely that the object of their addiction is what they will spend the most time thinking about. They might be constantly contemplating the next time they can use the substance, how soon they can take it, whether they can use it on the premises without being found out or how they may be able to afford their next dose. This can lead to increased disinterest and lack of motivation for work.

If an employee keeps missing work, their workload may have to be transferred to others and that can be a real morale killer. It’s even worse if one person’s addiction directly affects others in the workplace; for instance, if the addicted member of staff starts to steal from colleagues in order to fund their addiction, or if an injury or fatal accident occurs in the workplace directly as a result of one person’s addiction.

As an employer, what can you do about addiction?

Even if an employee appears to be high-performing, it is important for you to deal with the issue as soon as possible if they have a problem with addiction. There is a lot you can do, from taking preventive measures to taking action when the problem is ‘on the ground’. The first means by which you can address addiction as an employer is to establish a policy for drug and alcohol use. Once you have laid out your policy in writing, ensure that you explain it clearly to your employees.

If you have reason to believe an employee may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, take the time to have a physical meeting rather than simply sending an email or discussing things over the phone. Before scheduling a meeting, you can speak to an addiction counsellor or doctor to confirm your suspicions and provide advice. Even though you are in charge, you should always approach the matter respectfully and hold the meeting privately.

Talking with someone about their addiction is not an easy conversation to have, but it is important to avoid being too personal. Try to keep it professional and restrict it to the boundaries of their job performance. You can expect denial, even if the employee has been caught red-handed engaging in substance abuse. Don’t flare up over this. Instead, offer your support and consider holding an intervention with co-workers, colleagues and others who are close to the person.

What legal responsibilities does an employer have?

There are various laws in the UK that prescribe what legal responsibilities you have as an employer. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that it is your duty as an employer to ensure you safeguard the welfare, health and safety at work of all your employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. You could actually be liable to charges if you knew an employee was abusing drugs but still allowed them to work, placing themselves and others at risk.

A later set of regulations, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, states that as an employer, it is your duty to perform necessary risk assessments to ensure the safety and health of your employees. It is for this reason that drug tests are so important. There are other laws that are specific to certain industries, so you should pay attention to such regulations, depending on the industry in which you operate.

According to the Transport and Works Act 1992, it is considered a criminal act if an employee who is working on guided transport systems like tramways and railways happens to be unfit due to drugs or alcohol whilst doing so. This Act also deems the operators who employ these members of staff to be guilty of an offence, except in cases where they did everything necessary to prevent the worker from committing the offence.

From the outset, it’s clear that you have a great deal of responsibility for the health and wellbeing of your staff – not only those who may be struggling with substance abuse, but also those who work with them.

Functional vs. non-functional addicts in the workplace

Unlikely as it may sound, it is possible to be an addict and still function at acceptable levels in the workplace, completing your assignments and paying your bills. Anyone like this falls into the category of the functional addict. They have an addiction, but remain in control of their life (or at least seem to be).

A functional addict may not be as easy to spot in the workplace, because they seem to be doing well enough. It is possible that their productivity levels may not be as high as you might expect as an employer, but they’ll deliver all the same.

A non-functional addict on the other hand, is one whose addiction has taken over their life so much that they cannot hide it and may not be able to function optimally at work. Their productivity levels are likely to be low and they may call in sick on a regular basis. As an employer, it is important to treat both cases as a serious addiction, even if the functional addict appears to be productive for the most part.

Drug abuse in the workplace: Facts and statistics

In 2010/11, British Crime Survey found that almost three million individuals, representing 8.8% of the adult population (16 to 59 years old) had used illicit drugs in the last year. In 2003/04, the percentage was 12.3% of adults. The age group found to abuse illicit drugs the most were 16 to 19 year olds.

The same set of findings indicated that roughly 1.4 million people aged 16 to 24 years old had abused illicit substances in the past year (a proportion of 20.4% of that group). Within the same period, 6.8% of people aged 16 to 59 years old reported having tried cannabis – a 0.2% rise on figures from the previous year.

These statistics matter, because many of the individuals captured in the numbers are employed. In 2004, the Smith et al. survey discovered that 13% of respondents who had jobs admitted to using drugs in the previous year. The rate varied with age, as 29% of people below the age of 30 reported drug use and only 3% of people 50 and above admitted to using drugs.

A 2007 survey by Norwich Union found that 15% of employees reported having been drunk at work and 32% reported having been to work with a hangover. One in 20 employees said this happened once a week, while one in 10 said it happened at least once a month. 15% of people working in agriculture and wholesale and 20% of individuals working in construction said they went to work whilst hungover once a week.

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How can the workplace play a role in substance abuse treatment?

There are a number of ways the workplace can play an active role in the treatment of substance abuse. One is by sponsoring Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that provide assistance in connecting workers to local treatment resources. Such programmes may also offer short-term counselling services.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a global action plan, which states that all employees should be able to access health consultation services at work. As an employer, you must take this seriously, as it can make the difference between a healthy workplace and an unhealthy one.

It is also important to engage in active communication with employees, ensuring that they understand not only the benefits of maintaining a drug-free, productive, safe and healthy workplace but also what they can do to make sure that these organisational goals are achieved. As an employer, you can create useful policies to this effect.

Preventing addiction in the workplace

Preventing addiction at work begins with the creation of meaningful policies regarding drug use and addiction. Policies are meant to be enforced when the need arises, so be sure to implement them when necessary. Bear in mind that the policies should also help hold you accountable, as much as they do your staff.

You must also do your best to avoid enabling addiction by trying to counsel the addicted member of staff without the help of a professional, transferring their work to others to complete, covering up for them or lending money to them.

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