December 26, 2018 Last updated December 25th, 2018 1,894 Reads share

The Hidden Cost of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

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Substance abuse costs the USA $174 billion in productivity, with alcohol and drug abuse costing $249 billion and $271.5 billion respectively. Businesses lose up to $81 billion annually, according to studies, to drug abuse which is approximately 10% of annual payroll.

According to studies done by  and represented by this infographic:

  • 70% of substance abusers are in full-time employment, 15% of workers are drunk at work at least occasionally, and 9 out of 10 drug abusers work at small or medium businesses.
  • 75% of illicit drug users are currently unemployed which is about 17% of the U.S workforce.
  • According to tests conducted on the general U.S workforce in 2016, the year had the highest drug positivity within a span of 12 years.
  • There was a 12% increase in positivity for cocaine (7.7% in safety-sensitive areas), 74.7% increase for marijuana, and a 75% increase for methamphetamines in 2016.
  • In organizations without a drug-testing programme, 30 – 40% of employees self-reported past month use.
  • Men with jobs which can be classified as “blue-collar” are 3.5 times more likely to die from an alcohol-related disease than men who are managers.
  • Women with “routine jobs” such as cleaning and sewing are 5.7 times more likely to die than those with white-collar jobs from an alcohol-related disease.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse are known to cause 40% of industrial accidents and 60% of all poor job performances.
  • 33% of employees admit to having been to work with a hangover; 83% of these employees admit that it makes a difference in the way they work, and 22% admit to having made mistakes at the workplace as a result of being hungover.
  • The effects of these on businesses include reduced productivity, absenteeism or extra sick leave, and accidents which can be fatal.
  • Fields with the most problem drinkers include construction and mining, wholesale, retail, leisure and hospitality, and installation/maintenance and repair.
  • Fields with the highest rate of drug abuse include food preparation and serving, construction, arts, design, entertainment, sports and media, sales, installation, maintenance, and repair.
  • 80% of studies show that alcohol-related work issues come from social drinkers and not frequent alcohol drinkers.


The fact that some people use substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs, or that some people misuse prescription drugs is not new. The awareness that the use and abuse of substances may affect the workplace just as the workplace may affect how a person uses substances is, however, increasing in acceptance. Many aspects of the workplace require alertness and accurate and quick reflexes. An impairment of these qualities can cause incidents, and interfere with the accuracy and efficiency of work.

Ways that problematic substance use may cause issues at work include:

  • any impact on a person’s judgment, alertness, perception, motor coordination or emotional state that also impacts working safely or safety-sensitive decisions
  • after-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance
  • absenteeism, illness, and/or reduced productivity
  • preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration
  • illegal activities at work including selling illicit drugs to other employees,
  • psychological or stress-related effects due to substance use by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects another person’s job performance.

Note that substance use is often thought of like an addiction or dependence, but use can be anywhere on the spectrum or scale from recreational to frequent to problematic. As a result, there are varying impacts on lives and work. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health use the following “4 C’s” to describe addiction:

  • craving
  • loss of control of the amount or frequency of use
  • compulsion to use
  • use despite consequences

The economic impacts of substance use in Canada to businesses or industry have been traditionally difficult to measure. Many costs are hidden by general absenteeism or illnesses, “unnoticed” lack of productivity, or inability or reluctance to link substance use directly with causes of incidents.

Costs to a business may be both direct and indirect. The impact of substance use that has been reported include:

  • safety (fatalities, incidents, etc.)
  • absenteeism/sick leave/turnover or presenteeism
  • loss of production, and
  • workplace violence and harassment.

Additional costs can include:

  • tardiness/sleeping on the job
  • theft
  • poor decision making
  • loss of efficiency
  • lower morale and physical well-being of worker and co-workers
  • increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers/supervisors
  • training of new employees
  • disciplinary procedures
  • drug testing programs
  • medical/rehabilitation/employee assistance programs
  • Various and numerous organizational, personal and social factors can play a major role in why a person may choose to use a substance. In general, however, some work-related factors can include:
  • high stress,
  • high demand/low control situations,
  • low job satisfaction,
  • long hours or irregular shifts,
  • fatigue,
  • repetitious duties,
  • periods of inactivity or boredom,
  • isolation,
  • lack of opportunity for promotion,
  • lack of, remote, or irregular supervision and,
  • easy access to substances.

Work can be an important place to address substance use issues. Employers and employees can collaborate to design policies which outline what is an acceptable code of behavior and what is not. By establishing or promoting programs such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), employers can help employees more directly or provide referrals to community services.

The policy can cover substance use issues, or it can use an overall approach such as impairment in the workplace. The main goal is that workplaces are encouraged to establish a procedure or policy so that help can be provided in a professional and consistent manner. It is important for supervisors and managers to have a resource or procedure that they can rely on if the need arises. Employees need to know that everyone will be treated the same way. These actions help to reduce the stigma associated with substance use. When stigma is reduced, it is hoped that people will seek help without fear, and will speak openly about substance use issues. Early treatment and support are encouraged.

In addition, managers and supervisors should be educated on how to recognize and deal with substance use issues and employees should be offered educational programs. Note it is not the role of the supervisor or employer to diagnose a possible substance use or dependency problem. Their role is to identify if an employee is impaired, and to take the appropriate steps as per the organization’s policy.

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James Cummings

James Cummings

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