How Employers Can Help Alleviate America’s Substance Abuse Problem

How Employers Can Help Alleviate America’s Substance Abuse Problem
Employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for all employees. Substance abuse in the workplace can not only harm the individual, but it can also affect the productivity and safety of the entire team. File photo: King Ropes Access, Shutter Stock, licensed.

NEW YORK, NY – With substance abuse rates at a worrying high, it is no secret that America has a drug problem. Among Americans aged 12 years and older, 37.3 million were current illegal drug users as of 2020. But if we look at adults aged 21 and over in the workplace and assume that number is only one-third of this statistic, it would mean there are approximately 12 million adults engaging in substance abuse. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), drug use is highest among persons between the ages of 18-25 at 39% compared to persons aged 26-29, at 34%. This is concerning since substance abuse in these age brackets could become an issue in the workplace.  

As Mental Health First Aid notes, “The numbers surrounding mental health and substance use challenges in the workplace are staggering. Studies show that every year, up to 200 million workdays are lost to mental health challenges. Untreated mental illness costs the United States a staggering $3.7 trillion every year. And approximately 10.8 million full-time employees face a substance use challenge.”

Employees who struggle with substance abuse often experience a decline in their work performance, productivity, and attendance. This can lead to missed deadlines, decreased efficiency, and ultimately, reduced profits for the company. Substance abuse also increases the likelihood of workplace accidents, injuries, and fatalities, which can result in legal liabilities and increased workers’ compensation costs for the company. Moreover, substance abuse can negatively impact workplace morale and relationships between employees. It can create a tense and hostile work environment, leading to a decrease in teamwork and collaboration.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) outlines a number of ways for employers to seek assistance for employees in need. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are commonplace and can be found in many workplaces across the US. According to the NCBI, “The workplace provides a unique opportunity to address the entire spectrum of substance use problems, both diagnosable abuse or dependence and other problematic use. Most adults with substance use problems are employed, and an estimated 29% of full-time workers engage in binge drinking and 8% engage in heavy drinking; 8% have used illicit drugs in the past month. Substance use problems contribute to reduced productivity, absenteeism, occupational injuries, increased health care costs, worksite disruption, and potential liability as well as other personal and societal harms.”


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The NCBI also outlines how these programs work: “EAPs are workplace-based programs designed to address substance use and other problems that negatively affect employees’ well-being or job performance. About 66% of worksites with 100 or more employees and 90% of Fortune 500 firms have an EAP. Most contemporary EAPs are “broad-brush” programs that address a wide spectrum of substance use, mental health, work-life balance, and other issues. EAPs typically offer three to eight visits for assessment or short-term counseling or both, with no copayment. Employees may be referred by supervisors for poor job performance related to substance use or other problems, or—more commonly—they may self-refer. Services are often extended to family members. In some cases, short-term counseling is sufficient to address a clients needs. In others, the client is assessed, referred to behavioral health treatment outside the EAP, and provided follow-up support as needed.”

Employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for all employees. Substance abuse in the workplace can not only harm the individual, but it can also affect the productivity and safety of the entire team. To effectively deal with this issue, employers should first establish clear policies regarding drug and alcohol use, and communicate them to all employees. This may include a drug testing program and consequences for violating the policy.

Employers should also educate their employees on the dangers of substance abuse and offer resources for those who need help. This may include an EAP that offers confidential counseling and support services for employees struggling with addiction. Employers can also provide information on local treatment programs and support groups.

The United States Department of Labor emphasizes the need to reduce stress at work and alleviate the employee stress level. “The goal is to find ways to alleviate or remove stressors in the workplace to the greatest extent possible, build coping and resiliency supports, and ensure that people who need help know where to turn. Reducing workplace stress benefits everyone across an organization. It can improve morale and lead to increased productivity and better focus, fewer workplace injuries, fewer sick days, and improved physical health (e.g., lower blood pressure, stronger immune system).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration points to research by the American Psychological Association which suggests that, “across all industries, lower-level employees were more likely to experience the negative impacts of work-related stress and over 30 percent have felt fed up with work frequently or more often in the past 30 days.”

The research shows that workplace issues can exacerbate the risk of mental health challenges. Stress at the office can make it more difficult for workers to perform their jobs; “threaten their productivity, happiness, and well-being; and lead to burnout.” Due to the potential stress employees may be experiencing, a comprehensive approach is needed to address the issue throughout the community, and employers can be part of the solution. Stress can lead to a search for a crutch and that often leads to substance abuse whether it is alcohol or drugs. People suffering from these types of mental health issues – and many do – will not necessarily exhibit outward signs of suffering. Employers, senior managers, and colleagues should make every effort to keep their eyes and ears open. Anyone can struggle with substance abuse.

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