In 2020, streaming media and production company, Netflix, captured the realities of one person’s struggle with substance abuse in the workplace. Sonja Farak gained nationwide attention for a case that rattled a small, quaint community. The true crime docu-series, How to Fix a Drug Scandal, focuses on a lab chemist struggling with mental health while finding an outlet through self-medication, utilizing illicit substances she was hired to oversee for the Massachusetts courts. Although dubbed one of the biggest scandals within the American judicial system, this heart-wrenching tale about addiction and substance abuse in the workplace is all too common.
Contrary to popular belief, most Americans struggling with a substance use disorder continue to hold down a job. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), more than 70% of those abusing illicit drugs in the U.S. are employed, the majority of which are categorically binge drinkers. In addition, the most commonly abused illegal drugs on a job site are marijuana and cocaine.
Stereotypical depictions of substance abuse demand that we conjure up the image of a down-and-out drifter or a shameful rock-bottom moment. The reality of substance abuse is that there’s a very good chance that someone who struggles with addiction is actually a high-functioning user of alcohol or drugs.
U.S. Workforce Impacts by Drug Epidemic
According to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, 14% of the U.S. population meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder. Yet, only about 8% of affected individuals are treated for their illness. In 2018, approximately 19% of Americans reported using illicit drugs, such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Additionally, since 2000 most illicit drug use has caused well over 700,000 overdose deaths.
These alarming rates of substance abuse carry over to job sites. In fact, in the U.S. workforce, the rate of amphetamines (found in drugs like Adderall), marijuana, and heroin detection have increased annually for the past five years. Cocaine use was up 12% from 2015, reaching a seven-year high. Due to this growth, it has become common practice for employers to assess drug use behaviors and assess liability based on drug use within the workforce.
From an employee standpoint, jobs may carry higher rates of stress or expose them to a greater degree of personal harm or danger, particularly those that are considered blue-collar jobs. Studies indicate that workers may feel more compelled to seek relief through self-medication in jobs where fatigue, depression, fear, or shame is common. The resulting statistics are astounding.
Substance Abuse in the Workplace Statistics
Substance abuse is often viewed by many as a coping mechanism. Due to the high stress of numerous industries, many people resort to drug or alcohol use to cope with their jobs.
Substance abuse in the workplace occurs across all industry types, and, interestingly, each sector has its own rates of addiction and types of substance used. For example, workers in the mining and construction industries see the highest rates of heavy alcohol use and alcohol consumption on the job at 17.5% and 16.5%, respectively. On the other hand, illicit drug use is more common in industries like accommodations and food services, arts and entertainment, and even real estate.
Alcohol and drug abuse by employees cause many expensive problems for business and industry, ranging from lost productivity, injuries, and an increase in health insurance premiums.
According to the National Safety Council, about 16% of employees live with a substance use disorder. This study reported that the highest rate of prescription pain medication disorders is among workers in the services sector. Additionally, researchers divide the $81 billion spent per year on drug abuse in the workplace into three categories:
- Healthcare costs
- Lost productivity
Also, an estimated 80% of drug users supported their drug use by stealing from their place of employment. From opioids to alcohol, prescription medications to recreational drugs, workers take drastic measures to conceal their addiction.
What causes or contributes to illicit drug use and substance abuse in the workspace? Among the most common reasons reported by U.S. workers, substance abuse is a growing issue due to:
- Availability of drugs and alcohol
- Job isolation
- Mental health both in and outside of work
- Social culture
Even traditional white-collar jobs are not immune to unhealthy amounts of stress. In 2015, Sarvshreshth Gupta, 22, and an analyst at Goldman Sachs jumped to his death from a rooftop in San Francisco. In May of the same year, Thomas J. Hughes, 29, an investment banker at Moelis & Co., committed suicide shortly after disclosing to family members that he was suffering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Poor mental health, combined with grueling working conditions, negatively impact millions of workers nationwide every year. In addition, because of our current state of hustle culture, people in all professions receive little to no support and are inevitably facing more burnout and mental health impacts. As a result, many individuals struggle to cope and maintain a lifestyle built on high rates of stress and negativity.
Risks of Substance Abuse in the Workplace
The likelihood of workplace accidents skyrockets when employees are under the influence of any type of substance. Reports also indicate that drinking on the job can also increase the crime rate, particularly with aggravated assault and sexual battery. Other side effects of addiction and drug abuse at work can include:
- Withdrawal symptoms affecting job performance
- Inability to focus or concentrate while under the influence
- Needless risk-taking affecting safety
- Illegal sales of drugs to coworkers
But what are the continued risks of substance abuse in the workplace? Misuse of alcohol and drugs creates costly medical, social, and other problems that impact both employees and employers. Drug use threatens public safety, impairs job performance, and causes more accidents that are a liability for employers.
According to a study by OSHA, the most dangerous occupations, such as mining and construction, also have the highest drug use rates by their employees. Using drugs has demonstrated to impair decision-making abilities, as well as physically impairs people. In fact, 10 to 20% of American workers who die at work test positive for drugs and alcohol.
Employer Impacts of Drug Use
OSHA often performs regular inspections of safety in all workplaces, and infractions may cause the company to lose health insurance policies, lose liability insurance, and may ultimately lead to the closure of the organization. In the end, the cost of substance use in the workplace does not solely pertain to the employee using the substance but may put co-workers, managers, and the company at significant risk. Some other common workplace problems due to substance use include:
- High turnover rates
- Loss of wages due to illness or health problems
- Highly stressful work environment
- Lack of safety and responsibility
- Loss of productivity
Since substance abuse places several aspects of work at risk, it is understandable why such protocols have been put in place not just at an organizational level but also at a political level. In the end, employers and law enforcement have the right to discipline staff members if substance use occurs in the workplace.
Over 26% of employed adults have substance abuse or addiction in their families. Over 42% of these employees felt their productivity suffer as a result.
Why Do Employers Screen for Substance Use?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, employees who engage in alcohol abuse and who struggle with substance use dependence are approximately three times more likely to negatively impact the work environment and to experience injury-related absence from work. This statistic is based on alcohol consumption outside of the workplace and does not account for intoxication at work.
Additionally, substance abuse on the job has a far-reaching impact on the profitability of a business. Many job duties require being alert and accurate and being efficient in completing a task. Substance abuse affects employers in several ways, including:
- Employees tardiness or sleeping on the job
- Poor decision making
- Problems performing duties
- Decreased efficiency
- Low morale of coworkers
- High rate of turnover and an increase in training costs
- Costs of disciplinary procedures and drug testing equipment
In a nutshell, any amount of substance dependence, whether prescribed or recreational use, has been highly correlated with lower brain functioning, increased accidents at home and work, inability to make rational decisions, slower reflexes, and many other physical and emotional concerns. These factors can cause a workplace to be unsafe and unfit.
Can My Employer Fire Me for Prescription Medications?
Under the ADA, an employer cannot discriminate based on disability. However, if your medication is interfering with your ability to perform essential job functions with reasonable accommodations, or if you are taking the medication illegally, then you can be fired.
Impact of Substance Abuse on Employees
Substance abuse also has a significant impact on employees. From an employee perspective, the work environment may, indeed, contribute to substance dependency. As a result of job-related stress, many turn to substances to cope with long shifts and grueling work. Some of these detrimental factors include:
- High stress
- Low job satisfaction
- Long hours
- Irregular shifts
- Repetitive tasks
- Periods of inactivity and boredom
- Remote, irregular, or abusive supervision
Coworkers of those who abuse drugs on the job may also have to work longer hours or take on additional responsibility to compensate for lost productivity.
How to Combat Substance Abuse On-the-Job?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers should establish comprehensive programs to prevent workplace substance abuse. An effective workplace drug program usually establishes a list of procedures to follow concerning illegal drug use, such as:
- Prevention training
- Implementing infraction policies
- Setting rules and expectations
Many addiction experts agree that this list encapsulates the structure employers should adopt regarding substance use and substance use disorder. However, as more studies uncover the correlation between mental health and addiction, the more evident it becomes that other steps should be taken to fight addiction through training and compassionate understanding. Ideas can include:
- Training employees about the realities and signs of addiction
- Motivating employees to support a drug-free workplace
- Promote health and wellness
- Human Resources department should provide options to individuals and families to seek help through different resources and other channels
- Discuss how management referrals and self-referral for assistance are handled
- Maintain a safe, healthy, and productive environment for all
- Give positive feedback
- Advocate for employees
If you or a coworker are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact AspenRidge Recovery at 855-281-5588 for information on supportive services and evidence-based treatment. Our Colorado dual diagnosis center has helped thousands of Coloradans return to the workforce after successfully completing our programs.