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Saving Lives and Money: Solving Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Today in the United States, 71 percent of all drug users over the age of 18 are employed either full- or part-time; that's more than 10 million workers. The chances that your company employs a substance abuser, regardless of the size of your business or the number of employees you have, is greater today than it has been in the past several years. Why? Because substance abuse in America is on the rise and it hasn't left the workplace out of its path of destruction.

Substance Abuse Growing Problem in the Workplace

What can employers do to curb the growth of substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol? This is a critical question to ask. Because if you haven't done anything yet, chances are you have a bigger problem than you realize. Studies reveal that substance abusers as employees have a tremendous effect on the workplace they are more likely to have extended absences from work, show up late, be involved in a workplace accident, and file a workers' compensation claim.

The bottom line? Substance abusers in the workplace significantly contribute to increased health care costs, disability insurance costs, absenteeism rates, employee theft, and accidents, as well as decreased productivity, product quality and employee morale. Though there is no exact figure, reports estimate that substance abuse is costing American businesses billions of dollars each year.

Some employers may reason to themselves that they can't afford to address the problem of substance abuse in their workplaces; the truth is, they can't afford not to do something.

Taking a Stand

In response, employers from across the country, representing virtually all industries, from companies both large and small, are taking a stand against substance abuse in the workplace. They start by developing a written policy that clearly, yet firmly states that drug use and alcohol abuse in all its various forms and activities will not be tolerated. Then they implement a drug-free workplace program that includes drug testing. The most successful companies also provide access to counseling for their employees about their substance abuse problems.

A comprehensive program consists of five key components. They include developing a written policy, training supervisors, educating employees, providing employee assistance, and drug and alcohol testing. Following are things to consider with regards to each of the five components.

Writing a Substance Abuse Policy

In developing a written policy, start with a needs assessment. This may be as formal or informal as you deem necessary and useful. The purpose of the assessment is to get a clear idea of exactly what you wish to accomplish by establishing a policy and program, and the extent of the problem in your workplace.

Consider creating a task force or focus group consisting of representatives from throughout the company. Even if your employee pool is very small, enlisting their support from the beginning will go a long way in achieving the desired results from your program.

There are three basic parts to a written policy:

  1. An explanation of why you are implementing a program, such as concerns for employees' safety, improving the cost of doing business, and/or to comply with state or federal regulations.
  2. A clear description of substance abuse-related behaviors that are prohibited, such as any illegal drug use or being at work under the influence of alcohol.
  3. A thorough explanation of the consequences for violations of the policy, including, if applicable, termination.

Your written statement should include all the elements of your program. For example, if your program includes an employee assistance program and drug and alcohol testing, they should be explained in the policy statement.

Training Supervisors

The program's potential for success will be greatly impacted by the level of support your supervisors display. Their support, combined with the program's overall fairness and the firmness of your commitment, are critical.

Though supervisors should not be expected to render medical diagnoses regarding possible substance abuse disorders, they can be expected to identify the signs of poor job performance and follow standard company procedures for dealing with them.

An effective training program should allow supervisors to do the following:

  1. Know the company's policy and understand their role in its implementation and maintenance.
  2. Observe and document unsatisfactory job performance.
  3. Confront workers about unsatisfactory job performance according to company procedures.
  4. Understand the effects of substance abuse in the workplace.
  5. Know how to refer an employee suspected of having a substance abuse problem to those who are qualified to make a diagnosis and offer assistance.

Educating Employees

Educating employees is a critical step in achieving the objectives of your program. It should be treated as a process that is part of an on-going effort and not a one-time event.

Though the employee education component of your program will differ from other companies according to your specific needs, there are five basic objectives which your program should accomplish:

  1. Provide information about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs, and how they affect individuals and families.
  2. Describe the impact that substance abuse has on the workplace, including such areas as safety, productivity, and health care costs.
  3. Explain how the policy applies to every employee and the consequences for violations of the policy.
  4. Describe how the basic components of your overall program work, including employee assistance services and testing, if they are included.
  5. Describe how employees, and their dependents if included, can get help for their substance abuse problems.

There are a variety of ways to provide substance abuse education to employees and families. One way is to have regular articles in a newsletter or website. Another may be posters in employee break rooms.

Also, if your company is unionized, the union representative may be able to provide valuable assistance in the development and maintenance of an education/awareness program.

Providing Employee Assistance

An employee assistance program (EAP) is a job-based program intended to assist workers whose job performance is being negatively affected by personal problems. Workers' personal problems may be caused by any number of factors, including substance abuse. Many employers have discovered that EAPs are cost-effective, often resulting in overall savings in comparison to the money spent on the EAP itself.

Almost any company, regardless of size, can offer its employees the services of an EAP. The management of General Alum & Chemical was well aware of the concept of an employee assistance program, but did not pursue implementing a program because they assumed the costs would be prohibitive and that EAPs were a luxury only large companies could afford. Then, motivated by a fatal incident involving an employee on drugs, the company investigated the issue and discovered how affordable an EAP could be. Today, 40 percent of General Alum's employees utilize the EAP, 17 percent for substance abuse-related problems.

It is important to understand that EAPs do not offer "quick fixes," and it is not necessary to have a formal employee assistance program. For many companies, such a program is financially unrealistic. However, the services provided by EAPs are available in a variety of ways --often within the budget of a small company.

If you are contemplating including employee assistance services as part of your program, do the following:

  1. Contact other companies in your area that provide employee assistance services to their workers and learn about their programs: what they offer, how the service is provided, and the costs and results.
  2. Determine whether there is an EAP consortium available in your community that local businesses can join to receive EAP services at prices typically available only to larger companies. It is not unusual for a local or state chamber of commerce, trade association, or other business organization to provide such a service to its members.

Drug and Alcohol Testing

Drug and alcohol testing, with some limitations in a handful of states, is legal. Furthermore, when combined with the other components of a comprehensive program, testing can be a highly successful deterrent to employee substance abuse and an effective tool in helping employers identify workers in need of assistance.

Though setting up a testing program is not a simple process, every year more and more employers join the ranks of those companies that conduct drug and alcohol testing. According to the American Management Association, 87.2 percent of the respondents to their annual survey of the 1,000 largest companies in the United States include drug testing in their workplace substance abuse programs.

Before you implement a drug and/or alcohol testing program, consider the following.

  1. Who will you test? (Job applicants? All employees? Only those in safety-sensitive positions?)
  2. When will you test? (After accidents? When you have reason to believe that an employee is involved in substance abuse? As part of periodic physical examinations? Randomly?)
  3. For what will you test? (Marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, cocaine, and PCP as the federal government requires of some employers? Alcohol? Legally prescribed drugs that are commonly abused?)
  4. What consequences will employees and job applicants face if they test positive?
  5. Who will conduct your drug testing?

Again, it is wise to include your employees in all facets of your program's development, including drug testing. It is also important to remember that drug testing is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.


For many employers, workplace substance abuse programs work. They save the company money and, in some cases, they end up saving careers, families and lives.

Workplace Kit Offers Materials to Support Employer Efforts

For the first time in nearly a decade national surveys show increases in substance abuse. This heightens the challenge that employers, in particular, face of assuring their employees, customers and, in some cases, the federal government that their workplaces are free from substance abuse.

In an effort to assist companies in addressing the problems of substance abuse among their employees, the Substance Abuse and Mental Healt Services Administration (SAMHSA) has developed a drug-free workplace kit for trade and professional associations.

The kit, which is part of SAMSHA's Drug-Free Workplace Programs, contains a variety of workplace substance abuse materials, many of which are in reproducible formats. It also includes educational flyers on how to recognize the signs of substance abuse, listings of additional sources of assistance, public service advertisements and posters that are available to reproduce and use at no charge.

The kit also features industry-specific substance abuse fact sheets and success stories of companies that have implemented programs, along with results of their efforts. Also available in the kit is a 40-minute video called "America in Jeopardy," which discusses the magnitude of the workplace problem as it pertains to your employees, how substance abuse impacts job performance, and what employers can do to establish workplace programs.

For more information contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Call for Help - National 800-Numbers
Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP)/ Drug-Free Workplace Helpline 800/WORKPLACE (1-800-967-5752 Provides information and consultation regarding the development and implementation of a workplace substance abuse program.
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information 800/729-6686 Distributes information on alcohol and drugs.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment 800/662-4357 Provides advice and referrals to individuals about the availability of drug and alcohol services.
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