Reducing Substance Use in the Workplace

Early intervention and prevention programs can be key, and coworkers are in an ideal position to spot substance abuse.

Mental health and substance use disorders are common in the U.S., affecting millions each year. While these illnesses are serious and often recurring, they are treatable. Prevention programs, early intervention and screenings are important and necessary parts of treatment and recovery. Workplace programs to prevent and reduce substance use among employees can be especially effective. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, approximately 70% of drug users, binge and heavy drinkers and people with substance use disorders are employed. In 2014, about 21.5 million Americans were classified with a substance use disorder. Of those, 2.6 million had problems with both alcohol and drugs, 4.5 million had problems with drugs but not alcohol and 14.4 million had problems with alcohol only. See Also: Winning the War Against Opioid Addiction and Abuse Substance use disorders can present in a number of different ways in the workplace:
  • Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences.
  • Large federal surveys show that 24% of workers report drinking during the workday at least once in the past year.
  • One-fifth of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes report that a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking jeopardized their own productivity and safety.
  • Workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past-year users of illegal drugs as those who have had two or fewer jobs.
Coworkers and supervisors are in a unique position to notice a developing problem. Missed days of work, increased tardiness and reduced quality of work can all be signs of substance use. Early intervention and prevention programs can be key in slowing the move toward addiction and improving chances for recovery. Many organizations offer employee assistance programs and educational programs to increase awareness and reduce substance use problems. Anonymous online screenings are also an effective way to reach employees who underestimate the effects of their own condition and are unaware of helpful resources. For employers looking to address substance use issues in the workplace, national awareness days can be a great starting point. The website, developed by the nonprofit Screening for Mental Health Inc., offers anonymous screenings for alcohol and substance use. Efforts like these help to reduce stigma and to teach employees to recognize symptoms in themselves and others. Manager trainings on substance abuse symptoms, support for employees who seek treatment (paid time off, disability leave, etc.) and health insurance (including robust mental health coverage) are also excellent ways to support employees. Those who struggle with substance use and addiction also have higher rates of suicide. To fight this serious connection, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force champions suicide prevention as a national priority and cultivates effective programming and resources within the workplace. The task force provides support for employers and motivates them to implement a comprehensive, public health approach to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in the workplace. Programs like the Workplace Task Force are important sources of knowledge and assistance for employers. When organizations make the health of their workers a priority, benefits are seen beyond the individual employee. Improved attendance, quality of work and overall morale can lead to the betterment of the entire organization. While substance use disorders are common, they are treatable. Workplace-based programs are key to recognizing symptoms early and connecting employees with the treatment they may need.

Candice Porter

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Candice Porter

Candice Porter is executive director of screening for Mental Health. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker and has more than a decade of experience working in public and private settings. She also serves on the Workplace Taskforce under the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.


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