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Substance Abuse At Work: How To Detect And Deter It

More than 90 percent of large businesses now have drug-free workplace programs, reports the U.S. Department of Labor.

But you probably don’t: Less than 10 percent of small and medium companies do. If you were a drug or alcohol abuser, where would you look for a job?

Sure enough, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration cautions that about 90 percent of illicit drug users and nearly 90 percent of heavy drinkers work for small and medium companies.

Don’t let your business become an easy target. This report explains why you need protection and how to implement it.

The Scope Of The Problem

Employees who abuse drugs or alcohol can cost you plenty, as the following figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Working Partners program show.

Abusers are one-third less productive than nonabusers. They are 2 1/2 times more likely to miss eight or more work days each year. Their medical costs are 300 percent higher. And 38 to 50 percent of workers’ compensation claims are related to on-the-job substance abuse.

In 2007 the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that nearly 20 million Americans (about 8 percent of the population) were using illicit drugs. Fully 75 percent of these abusers are employed.

The agency also reported that about 23 percent of the population binges on alcohol (having five or more drinks during a single session within a 30-day period). About 7 percent of Americans have binged at least five days within the last 30.

Note that substance abuse need not take place during work hours. If an employee uses drugs before work, and the effects carry over into the workday, she is an abuser. Similarly, if a worker gets drunk in the evening, and his hangover reduces his performance the next morning at the office, he’s an abuser.

Creating A Strong Policy

You need a strong, unambiguous substance-abuse policy to protect your business, minimize liability and create a healthy environment for workers.

Many employers follow either:

  1. A hard-line approach that warns of dire repercussions for those who attempt to work impaired or
  2. A philosophy of focusing on performance, deterrence and assistance for those who are addicted.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Working Partners coalition advises that the most effective programs combine elements of both. The ideal program communicates a clear message that substance abuse has serious consequences (including disciplinary actions or termination) and encourages workers to get help.

Coming up with a policy and a drug-deterrence program sounds daunting, but plenty of help is available. Follow these six guidelines

  1. Talk to other employers in your industry to find out how they’ve handled the problem. If you belong to a trade or professional association, ask whether the issue is being addressed and whether best-practices information is available.
  2. Contact your Chamber of Commerce to ask about the existence of a drug-free workplace coalition in your area (see the For More Information section at the end of this report for more help).
  3. If you offer health insurance to employees, talk to your provider. Does it offer an employee-assistance program so workers can get confidential free or low-cost counseling?
  4. Call your liability and workers’ compensation insurance providers. Some companies provide resources to help you launch your program. Many also offer discounts for employers who implement drug-free initiatives.
  5. Examine sample policies available online. You can easily tailor them to your needs. Make sure the policy covers:
    • Examine sample policies available online. You can easily tailor them to your needs. Make sure the policy covers:
    • Reporting procedures for employees who think they spot substance abuse
    • Disciplinary actions
    • Drug-screening tests (if you decide to use them)
    • Possession or use of drugs or alcohol in the workplace and during work hours
    • Any provisions to help employees who are addicted
  6. Finally, meet with employees to let them know you’re drafting a policy for everyone’s benefit. The tone of the meeting should be informative, not threatening. Ask for input and incorporate good suggestions.
To Test Or Not To Test?

Drug testing is a powerful deterrent but must be handled carefully.

If you decide to initiate testing, your policy must spell out the following:
  • Who will be tested and when (All new employees? Anyone who has an on-the-job accident? All employees at certain intervals? An employee whose behavior could be consistent with drug or alcohol use?)
  • Which drugs you will test for
  • How and by whom tests will be conducted
  • The consequences of a positive test
Before you initiate a testing program, talk to an attorney to make sure you’re in compliance with all local, state and federal laws.

Communicate The Policy To Employees

Once you’ve written a policy, your job is to make sure employees know why you’ve crafted it, what it says and what their responsibilities are.

Your communications should focus on how a drug- and alcohol-free workplace benefits everyone with greater safety, higher productivity and lower costs.

Before you simply hand out copies of your policy, explain the details and benefits of the policy. Go over any potentially controversial points, such as mandatory drug testing.

Make yourself available for private one-on-one meetings afterward in case employees have questions. Simply announcing the new policy may encourage workers who have problems to come forward.

Ask employees to sign a statement that they have read and understood the policy and that they agree to comply. Save the signed statements in employees’ personnel files.

Post notices about your drug- and alcohol-free work environment in prominent locations.

And when you place employment ads, include a statement that your workplace is drug and alcohol free.

Are You Liable?

Sorting out your liability for a substance-abusing employee’s behavior can be complicated. Laws vary by state, and a creative complainant can cause plenty of trouble and expense even if he or she doesn’t win.

Assume that if an employee injures someone or damages property while impaired on the job, your company will be held responsible. The same could be true if an employee causes an accident after consuming alcohol at a company-sponsored party.

You probably won’t be held accountable for an employee’s possession or sale of drugs on company property if your policies clearly state your workplace rules and you haven’t ignored any indications that such activity was taking place.

The best defense is putting in place a detailed and firm anti-drug and alcohol policy. When in doubt, consult an attorney.

Tell-Tale Signs

It’s not always easy to detect when an employee is under the influence. Watch for these clues:

  • Physical signs such as chills, sweating, weight loss, physical deterioration or the smell of alcohol
  • Behavioral signs like inability to focus, poor coordination, nonstop talking, lethargy or irritability
  • Emotional signs such as aggression, anxiety, paranoia or depression
  • Missing appointments, tardiness, making frequent on-the-job mistakes, excessive absenteeism, carelessness or unreliability
Encourage employees who see such signs in their co-workers to bring their concerns to you. Be sure to keep such reports confidential.

Talking To A Problem Employee

If you or an employee observes behavior that might be caused by alcohol or drug abuse, you must address the problem immediately.

Make sure to strictly follow your written policy and refer to the policy during your discussion. Your case will be much stronger if you’ve documented all previous problems with the employee, including dates, times and specifics.

If you believe you might need to terminate the employee, it is wise to have an attorney present during the discussion.

Begin by showing concern for the employee and tell him what behaviors you’ve observed. Don’t accuse. Just calmly state what has happened and why it’s a problem. Be as specific as possible and refer to previous documentation if necessary. Spell out any disciplinary actions you plan to take, as indicated by your policy.

If the policy includes access to an employee-assistance program or rehab facilities, you can ask whether the employee is willing to accept help. It’s not necessary for you to get the person to admit to abusing drugs or alcohol.

Whatever you do, treat the situation confidentially. Don’t tell other employees that you had to discipline or terminate Jane or Joe because of alcohol or drugs. The most you should say is that you’re carrying out company policies and that you must respect Jane’s privacy, as you would any employee’s.

Should You Offer Rehab?

Alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation programs range from free—think Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous—to moderately priced outpatient programs and expensive residential facilities.

Costs vary widely. The most recent government statistics were published in 2002. At that time, the National Substance Abuse Treatment Services Survey indicated that the average monthly cost of an inpatient drug-rehab program was $7,000. The average cost of outpatient alcohol and drug treatment was about $1,400.

Should you offer rehab to employees with substance-abuse problems? If they have hard-to-replace skills and proven value to the company, it’s probably worth at least one try.

The last section of this report provides resources you can use to learn more about treatment options in your area.


For More Information

Visit these websites to get more information about substance abuse in workplace and treatment options.

DOL drug-free workplace policy builder
SAMHSA’s substance-abuse treatment facility locator, by state
The Small Business Administration’s drug-free workplace program