Illicit drug use and alcohol abuse in the workplace is more prevalent than employers may think, with one in 12 full-time U.S. workers admitting that they have used illegal substances in the past month, new research shows.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an annual average of approximately 9.4 million illicit drug users and 10.1 million heavy alcohol users held full-time jobs from 2002 to 2004. In the survey, the definition of illegal drug use included marijuana, and heavy alcohol use was defined as drinking five or more drinks on one occasion at least five times in the past 30 days.
The recent numbers for employee drug usage are up slightly from government survey data a decade ago -- the current usage rate is 8.2 percent, compared to 7.7 percent in 1997. "Employees who use drugs miss work more often, are less healthy, and are more prone to harming themselves and others in the workplace," John Walters, director of the National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement.
The industries where employees reported the highest rates of illicit drug use were food service, at 17.8 percent, and construction, at 15.1 percent. Similarly, heavy alcohol use was highest among construction, mining, excavation, and drilling workers, at 17.8 percent, and among maintenance and repair workers, it was 14.7 percent, the survey found.
Yet, despite the statistics, research shows little is being done by employers to address the problem of substance abuse in the workplace. In a separate survey of 1,000 human-resources professionals, more than two-thirds of respondents consider substance abuse one of the most serious issues they face in their company, however, only 22 percent said their company is proactively dealing with it, according to the Hazelden Foundation, a non-profit addiction recovery organization based in Center City, Minn.
Jill Wiedemann-West, senior vice president of clinical and recovery services at the Hazelden Foundation, said she was most surprised by the lack of progress in employer response to substance abuse. "There is a lot of focus in the workplace now around employee wellness programs and good nutritional management," Wiedemann-West said. "We need more education in that manner offered around the issue of addiction. The only way to move an issue forward is by making it approachable."
According to the Hazelden survey, HR professionals cited lack of experience in identifying substance abuse and addiction, and lack of information regarding treatment options as the top two personal barriers to helping employees deal with these issues. Another concern was the personal discomfort of having to approach an employee about substance abuse or addiction. "It's just uncomfortable, it's very difficult to always know what it is that you need to say," Wiedemann-West said.
Liz Tate, founder of Tate Transportation, a trucking company in Walla Walla, Wash., said that she knew substance abuse might be an issue she would have to deal with as a business owner. So she took a proactive approach -- by signing up for classes to help her identify the signs and symptoms of dependence and getting trained on how to confront employees who had a problem.
The transportation industry is federally regulated, and Tate has to test all her employees for drugs and alcohol. "It's out there -- alcohol and drug addiction is in every family across the country," Tate said. "I've used the skills that I've learned across the board with my employees and even friends."
The Hazelden survey found that 85 percent of HR professionals believe that offering an education program at their companies would be an effective way to address the problem.
In addition to her own training, Tate maintains a clear drug policy at her company and holds safety meetings with her employees throughout the year to review those policies. Tate said she has an open-door policy, and even gives out her cell phone number to all her employees.
However, confronting substance abuse in the workplace may be more difficult for some employers -- especially those who have a choice about drug testing policies. Only 30 percent of the full-time workforce surveyed reported that their current employer conducted random drug testing. That figure was higher -- at 62.9 percent -- for workers in the transportation and material-moving industry.
Not surprisingly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey also found that current drug users were more likely to work for employers who did not conduct drug or alcohol testing. Almost a third of the respondents said they would not take a job if they knew they would be tested.
But, according to Tate, drug testing does not always have to be a negative experience for an employer. "As long as you give employees clear and advanced notice that this is your policy, and if you discover any drug use through a random test, then their job is in jeopardy, I think you really can promote a good and clean environment to work in," Tate said.
Additionally, the results of the Hazelden survey indicate that promoting treatment programs among employees is a crucial factor in the business' long-term success, with 92 percent of respondents who believe it will boost employee productivity. Two-thirds of HR professionals also said that encouraging employees to seek treatment for substance abuse can reduce overall health-care costs for the company.
"Your bottom line is going to be better, and employee morale is going to be better," Tate says. "When you have a good group of clean, sober employees, things will run much smoother."
And Tate said she believes much of the responsibility of having a clean workplace falls on the employer. "Driving a tractor trailer down the road is a real safety-sensitive function, and it's imperative that my employees be clean, sober, and well-rested," she said. "That has to be my utmost responsibility to ensure employees can do the job at hand. If they're not, you jeopardize your whole business."