Defining Workplace Substance Abuse

Workplace substance abuse is defined as the use of any substance that can negatively affect a person’s judgment and performance while on the job. It includes coming to work impaired or taking substances while at work.

Frequently abused drugs include alcohol and other controlled substances (opioids, marijuana, cocaine, heroin), but legally prescribed and over-the-counter medications can also be abused while at work.

How Substance Abuse Affects the Workplace

Many roles involve being focused, alert, and accurate, so when someone is under the influence, they become impaired, causing issues that can affect the job site in many ways.

Some ways companies are affected by substance abuse are:

  • Loss of productivity
  • Safety incidents
  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased efficiency
  • Theft of company property
  • Employees nodding off
  • Poor decision making
  • High turnover rates
  • Low morale
Employees can be affected by substance abuse as well. Effects include:

  • Being tired
  • Losing focus
  • Feeling isolated
  • High levels of stress
  • Arriving late to work
  • Problems with coworkers
  • Injury or death to self or others
Coworkers of addicted employees may also have to work longer hours or take on additional tasks to make up for the lost productivity. Employees may also be at higher risk of getting injured or killed on the job due to negligent behavior.

Cost of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

According to Harvard Medical Publishing, in 2017 more than 70% of individuals with alcohol or illicit drug use issues were employed. The same study found that companies lose $81 billion in profits every year due to substance abuse at work.

According to American Addiction Centers, in 2017, drug abuse and addiction cost companies more than $740 billion a year in lost productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related costs.

The Surgeon General's 2016 report, Facing Addiction in America, found that the U.S. spends $120 billion a year to treat substance use disorders and the injuries and other health problems that come with substance abuse. These costs are not paid solely by the user or their families, but by company-paid health insurance as well, causing premiums to rise.

If a job is lost due to substance abuse while at work, costs come with replacing that employee. Replacing employees usually comes at one-third of that employees’ annual salary. Costs are greater for highly trained and highly-skilled workers and those in upper management positions.

Developing a substance abuse policy can help curtail these issues in the workplace.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Before you can establish a substance abuse policy, you’ll need to be able to recognize and address signs of substance abuse. It’s a very sensitive and private matter and employees may be scared to answer questions honestly or report coworkers abusing substances.

Common signs of substance abuse include:

  • Decrease in attendance or performance
  • Withdrawal from job or coworkers
  • Mood swings or attitude changes
  • Openly discussing money issues
  • Change in appearance/hygiene
  • Unusual patterns of behavior
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Acting defensive
  • Slurred speech

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Substance Abuse Toolkit: Workplace Substance Abuse