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How does substance abuse impact the workplace?

"I know all of my employees personally. Substance abuse isn’t a problem in our workplace." "It would be obvious if one of our employees was using drugs or alcohol at work." Fortunately, comments like these are no longer as common as they once were as a result of the significant strides that have been made in educating employers about substance abuse and how it can affect the workplace. There is still, however, a great deal of denial as well as numerous misconceptions among many employers about who is using illicit drugs and alcohol, and how this can directly impact their bottom line. The following statistics and anecdotes are intended to further educate and inform employers about the prevalence of substance abuse in the workplace, the impact that it has on the workplace and employees, and the benefits that employers have experienced as the result of implementing prevention programs.

Prevalence

  • More than six percent of the population over 12 years of age (13.9 million people) has used drugs within the past thirty days. Rates of use remain highest among persons aged 16 to 25–the age group entering the work force most rapidly.1
  • Seventy-three percent of all current drug users aged 18 and older (8.3 million adults) were employed in 1997. This includes 6.7 million full-time workers and 1.6 million part-time workers.1
  • More than 14 percent of Americans employed full- and part-time report heavy drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks on five or more days in the past 30 days. The heaviest drinking occurred among persons between the ages of 18 and 25 years.2 Of the 11.2 million heavy drinkers in 1997, 30 percent (3.3 million) also were current illicit drug users.3
  • Construction workers (15.6%), sales personnel (11.4%), food preparation, wait staff, and bartenders (11.2%), handlers, helpers, and laborers (10.6%,) and machine operators and inspectors (10.5%) reported the highest rates of current illicit drug use. Protective service workers reported the lowest rate of current drug use (3.2%).4
  • The occupational categories with above-average rates of heavy alcohol use, in addition to construction, were handlers, helpers, and laborers (15.7%), machine operators and inspectors (13.5%), transportation and material movers (13.1%), precision production and repair workers (13.1%), and employees in food preparation, including wait staff and bartenders (12.2%).4
  • According to a national survey conducted by the Hazelden Foundation, more than sixty percent of adults know people who have gone to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol.5

Costs and Workplace Impact

The economic and human costs of drug and alcohol use are astounding. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recently reported that alcohol and drug abuse cost the economy $246 billion in 1992, the most recent year for which economic data are available.6 In addition, numerous studies, reports and surveys suggest that substance abuse is having a profoundly negative affect on the workplace in terms of decreased productivity and increased accidents, absenteeism, turnover, and medical costs. Following are notable statistics that highlight the impact of substance abuse on the workplace:

  • In 1990, problems resulting from the use of alcohol and other drugs cost American businesses an estimated $81.6 billion in lost productivity due to premature death (37 billion) and illness (44 billion); 86% of these combined costs were attributed to drinking.7
  • Full-time workers age 18-49 who reported current illicit drug use were more likely than those reporting no current illicit drug use to state that they had worked for three or more employers in the past year (32.1% versus 17.9%), taken an unexcused absence from work in the past month (12.1% versus 6.1%), voluntarily left an employer in the past year (25.8 % versus 13.6%), and been fired by an employer in the past year (4.6% versus 1.4%). Similar results were reported for employees who were heavy alcohol users.8
  • According to results of a NIDA-sponsored survey, drug-using employees are 2.2 times more likely to request early dismissal or time off, 2.5 times more likely to have absences of eight days or more, three times more likely to be late for work, 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident, and five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim.9
  • Results from a U.S. Postal Service study indicate that employees who tested positive on their pre-employment drug test were 77 percent more likely to be discharged within the first three years of employment, and were absent from work 66 percent more often than those who tested negative.10
  • A survey of callers to the national cocaine helpline revealed that 75 percent reported using drugs on the job, 64 percent admitted that drugs adversely affected their job performance, 44 percent sold drugs to other employees, and 18 percent had stolen from co-workers to support their drug habit.11
  • Alcoholism causes 500 million lost workdays each year.12

Benefits

Despite recent news reports about the increased use of drugs, particularly among young people, we continue to be encouraged that workplace substance abuse is a problem for which a solution exists. When the issue is addressed by establishing comprehensive programs, which often include a policy, education and training, testing, and access to treatment through EAPs or other resources, it is a "win-win" situation for both employers and employees.   The following examples are illustrative:

  • One small plumbing company in Washington, D.C., the Warner Corporation, saved $385,000 in one year by establishing a drug-free workplace program that included EAP services. The company attributed the savings to a decrease in the number of accidents, which resulted in lower workers’ compensation costs and lower vehicle insurance premiums. Warner now has a waiting list of top-flight mechanics wanting to work in its drug-free environment, saving the company $20,000 a year on personnel advertising costs. Additionally, the proportion of apprentices completing a two-year training course has increased from 25 percent to 75 percent, resulting in annual savings of $165,000.13
  • In 1984, CSX Transportation, a freight railroad company, implemented Operation Redblock, a response to widespread violations of Rule G, which prohibits the use and possession of alcohol and drugs. The program’s 4000 volunteers are trained to confront substance abusers, and if appropriate, refer them to the company’s EAP. Since 1990, less than one percent of the drug tests administered to safety-sensitive employees have been positive.14
  • After implementing a comprehensive drug-free workplace program in response to a workers’ compensation discount law, W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractors in Florida saved $100,000 on workers’ compensation premiums in 1990, and also has experienced increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and fewer accidents.15
  • Only four years after implementing a workplace substance abuse program which included drug testing, Jerry Moland of Turfscape Landscape Care, Inc., in Chandler, AZ, says that his company is saving over $50,000 a year due to increased productivity, fewer accidents, and less absenteeism and turnover.13
  • According to the American Management Association’s annual Survey on Workplace Drug Testing and Drug Abuse Policies, workplace drug testing has increased by more than 1,200 percent since 1987. More than 81 percent of businesses surveyed in 1996 were conducting some form of applicant or employee drug testing. Likewise, the perceived effectiveness of drug testing, as assessed by human resources managers, has increased from 50 percent in 1987 to 90 percent in 1996.16
  • In 1995, the average annual cost of EAP services per eligible employee nationwide was $26.59 for internal programs staffed by company employees and $21.47 for external programs provided by an outside contractor, according to the Research Triangle Institute. 17 These costs compare favorably to the expense of recruiting and training replacements for employees terminated due to substance abuse problems—about $50,000 per employee at corporations such as IBM.18
  • The Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services conducted a follow-up survey of 668 substance abuse treatment residents one year after completing treatment. Findings indicated that absenteeism decreased by 89 percent, tardiness by 92 percent and on-the-job injuries by 57 percent.19

Statistics such as these suggest not only that workplace substance abuse is an issue all employers need to address, but also, that it is an issue that can be successfully prevented. Taking steps to raise awareness among employees about the impact of substance use on workplace performance, and offering the appropriate resources and/or assistance to employees in need, will not only improve worker safety and health, but also increase workplace productivity and market competitiveness.


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