Substance Abusers at the Workplace: Assessing Costs, Mitigating Risks, and Implementing Solutions

The use of drugs and alcohol in the United States is substantial, and the impact is undeniable. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, just under 49% of the population over the age of 12 are current users of alcohol, and 16.5%, or nearly 47 million, have used an illicit drug in the last month. In 2022, the number of people over the age of 12 with a substance use disorder (SUD) exceeded 48 million people, or 17% of the population. Included in that number were those with an alcohol use disorder (29.5 million), a drug use disorder (27.2 million), and those (about 8 million) who suffer from both an alcohol use disorder and a drug use disorder.  

Does the misuse or abuse of drugs or alcohol affect your workplace? How can you assess the cost to your organization? Perhaps the simplest way is to try the “NSC Employer Cost Calculator—Substance Use.” Two “imaginary” groups were created, one in education, health and social services care and the other in construction. Both have 500 employees and are in Illinois. For the construction group, the total cost of substance abuse was projected to be $775,606. The calculator estimated that 76 employees and 62 employees would be affected by substance dependence, and increased healthcare costs alone would be nearly $200,000. For the education, health, and social services group, the total cost of substance abuse was projected to be $357,258. The calculator estimated that only 32 employees and a similar number of family members, 62, would be affected by substance dependence. In the second group, the healthcare costs associated with substance dependence would be approximately $130,000. In both groups, the two most problematic substances were alcohol by a large margin, followed by cannabis. The calculator provides other valuable information, including the savings that could accrue from taking action to address substance misuse and help individuals seek treatment.  

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) suggests other ways to assess the impact of substance abuse on your workplace. You can review your existing workplace records, commonly associated with substance misuse or abuse. Those records include: 

  • Pattern of absence (Monday, Fridays, the day after holidays or paydays) 
  • Patterns of disciplinary actions 
  • Wage garnishments 
  • Accidents and injuries (look for the same patterns as seen with absenteeism)  
  • Inventory shrinkage that may be attributable to “misappropriation”  
  • Worker turnover  
  • Workers’ compensation claims – again noting whether there is a pattern for accidents or injuries 

In addition, employers may wish to survey employees and include questions highlighting problems associated with substance misuse or abuse. 

  • Do you feel safe at work? 
  • Have you seen illicit drug or alcohol use on the job? 
  • Have you heard about illicit drug or alcohol use on the job? 
  • Are you aware of co-workers being impaired at work? 
  • Are you aware of our company’s drug and alcohol policy? 
  • Are you familiar with the services of the employee assistance program (EAP) (if there is one)? 
  • Do you know what to do if you are aware that a co-worker represents a risk to themselves or others because of their drug or alcohol use? 
  • Would you like to learn how to use Narcan (the opioid overdose rescue medication)?  

Call to Action 

Develop a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy  

Educate employees about your policy and the common drugs of abuse 

Train your supervisors to recognize the signs of drug use and workplace impairment 

Equip your supervisors to address reasonable suspicion testing situations 

Implement a drug test program appropriate for your workplace using a trusted and reliable partner (ScreenSafe, Inc.) 

Implement an Employee or Member Assistance Program and aggressively promote its services. 

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