Five Keys to Solving Workplace Substance Abuse

HR & Safety

The chances that your company employs a substance abuser are greater today than they’ve ever been in the past.
According to some estimates, nearly 70 percent of all drug users over the age of 18 are employed either full or part time. That’s more than 10 million workers.
So if you haven’t yet addressed the issue of alcohol and drugs in your workplace, now would be a good time to get started. And if you have addressed the problem, your substance abuse program may still need some fine tuning.
Here are five key components necessary for a comprehensive program.

Have a Written Policy

The first step in taking a stand against substance abuse is to develop a written policy. Many companies report that just having a policy in place can help turn around a workplace problem. Once the word is out that a company is drug free, they say, that helps keep drug users out.
At a minimum an effective policy has three parts:

  • An explanation of why you are implementing a program, such as concern for employees’ safety, improving the cost of doing business, and/or complying with government regulations.
  • A description of substance abuse related behaviors that are prohibited, such as illegal drug use or being under the influence during working hours.
  • An explanation of the consequences for violating the policy.

If your program includes an employee assistance program, drug and alcohol testing or other elements, those should also be explained in the policy statement.

Train Your Supervisors

How well your program succeeds depends in large part on the level of support you get from your supervisors. They are generally in the best position to know if one of your employees is having a performance problem that could be related to substance abuse. For supervisors to demonstrate solid commitment, they need to be trained to:

  • Understand the company’s policy and their role in its implementation and maintenance
  • Observe and document unsatisfactory job performance
  • Confront workers about unsatisfactory job performance according to company procedures
  • Understand and recognize the signs of substance abuse in the workplace
  • Know how to refer an employee suspected of having a substance abuse problem to those qualified to make a diagnosis and offer assistance

Educate Your Employees

There are a variety of ways to provide substance abuse education to employees, from holding regular training sessions to including articles in the company newsletter. Whatever the method, it should accomplish these five basic objectives:

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

Provide Employee Assistance

An employee assistance program (EAP) assists workers whose job performance is being negatively affected by personal problems.
While employers are familiar with the concept, they sometimes assume that the cost of an EAP will be prohibitive. Many of these employers eventually discover that EAPs are often cost effective, resulting in overall savings in comparison to the money spent.
Still, for smaller companies, a formal EAP may be financially unrealistic. Depending on the community where an employer is located, however, services similar to an EAP may be available in a number of other, less formal ways.
If you are contemplating including employee assistance services as part of your alcohol and drug program, it would be helpful to:

  • Contact other companies in your area to learn about the employee assistance services they offer their workers, how the services are provided, and the costs and results
  • Determine whether there is an EAP consortium in your community that local businesses can join to receive EAP services at prices typically available only to larger companies.

Consider Drug and Alcohol Testing

According to the American Management Association, every year more and more employers join the ranks of those companies that conduct drug and alcohol testing.
In Connecticut, employers are for the most part free to test applicants for employment, and many employers report that simply having a sign on their door warning of the testing program has had a deterrent affect.
While the ability to test current employees is more limited, employers may test employees who work in jobs that the state Labor Commissioner has determined to be safety sensitive.
Tests that are authorized by federal law may be conducted; an employee who objectively appears to be under the influence on the job may also be tested.
Before implementing a testing program, you need to decide what you will test for: illegal drugs only, alcohol, legally prescribed drugs that are commonly abused? You must also determine who will conduct your testing as well as the consequences employees and applicants will face if they test positive.


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