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Substance Abuse: A Common and Difficult Workplace Problem

A recent study by the US Health and Human Services Department found that one in 12 full-time US workers ages 18 to 64 acknowledged using illegal drugs in the past month. The highest rates were among restaurant workers, 17.4%, and construction workers, 15.1%. Other relatively high usage was found in these occupations: sales (9.6%), installation, maintenance and repair (9.5%), and transportation and material handling (8.4%).

Abuse of substances, both legal and illegal, is a serious workplace problem that affects injuries, absenteeism and productivity. Testing programs for drug and alcohol use can be an effective way to identify problems; yet employers need to be cognizant of the many legal issues surrounding both the test and the use of the results.

There are barriers on both sides of the issue, making it difficult to address the problem. Employees often do not acknowledge they have a problem; employers may suspect, but have no real evidence, that there is a problem.

The Hazelden Foundation, a national, nonprofit foundation created in 1949 to address substance addiction, offers the following suggestions to help managers address addiction in the workplace:

• Educate – Inform and discuss the company’s policies regarding alcohol and drug abuse

• Document – Keep a record of the employee’s work performance – good and bad. In this way you will be able to document any change.

• Warn – Have an informal talk to alert the employee about his or her unsatisfactory job performance, communicate your expectations and discuss the consequences. Do not discuss drug and alcohol abuse specifically. Keep the conversation on job performance issues.

• Refer – Contact the company’s designated person, such as an employee assistance program representative or a medical professional for advice and guidance.

• Follow up – Provide the appropriate support.