Substance abuse in the workplace is a subject of concern for many business owners, to one degree or another. Often times the issue is a sensitive one to confront, but business owners and researchers alike agree that if left unchecked, substance abuse has the capacity to cripple or destroy a company. Substance abuse is a difficult problem to eradicate in many business settings, but it can be particularly difficult to address in small business settings.  After all, many small business owners develop close – or at least friendly – relationships with their employees because they often work together on projects and share smaller work areas. Because many small business owners have one-on-one relationships with each employee, dealing with an employee who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is a personal as well as a personnel problem. 

But substance abuse experts and business researchers alike warn that substance abuse problems are not the sort of problems that tend to go away by themselves. Rather, they often continue to grow and fester, further strangulating the business’s productivity and profitability. Indeed, substance abuse often ends up being a tremendous drain on a company’s fiscal wellbeing. This drain takes many forms, including decreased productivity, increased absences, rising number of accidents, use of sick leave, and jumps in workers’ compensation claims. 

Indeed, alcohol and drug abusers are absent from work two-and-a-half times more frequently than nonusers; their workers’ compensation claims are five-times higher; and they are generally less productive. This latter factor – what is termed “the less dramatic, day-to-day financial losses that accrue in a company when its workers are impaired and performing below potential” – can be particularly deadly to a business precisely because its impact is so hard to detect and quantify.

Finally, substance abusers often compromise the efficiency of other workers within the business. Co-workers are often hampered by the substandard work of the abuser, and in many cases, their effectiveness may be further curtailed by a sense of obligation to cover for their co-workers – who, after all, are often their friends as well.

Substance abuse problems also open companies up to greater legal liability. Studies indicate that 1) alcohol and drug abusers are two to four times as likely to have an accident as people who do not use drugs and alcohol and 2) substance abusers can be linked to approximately 40% of industrial fatalities. Moreover, drug – or alcohol – addled employees can also wreak harm on people and places outside the company. When drivers come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, accidents could happen, causing the disruption of deliveries or other activities. Vehicles could be damaged; people could be hurt or killed. This has an immediate impact on the bottom line for a small or medium-sized company.

Finally, in situations where a partner or owner of the business is one with a substance abuse problem, the very life of the company is often jeopardized. Such people obviously wield tremendous amount of influence over a company, and if their ability to make reasonable, intelligent decisions in a timely manner is compromised, the financial health of the company will likely deteriorate as well.

Characteristics of substance abusers

Substance abuse experts and business owners who have been forced to deal with drug and/or alcohol abusers in their workplace cited a variety of warning signs that owners and managers should look for if they suspect a problem:

  1. Increased absenteeism and tardiness, especially immediately before and after  weekends and holidays
  2. Deteriorating work performance, as manifested in big changes in work quality and/or productivity
  3. Frequent colds, flus, headaches, and other ailments
  4. High rates of mishaps, both on and off the job
  5. Unusually high medical claims
  6. Excessive mood swings, which may manifest themselves in immoderate levels of talking, anxiety, or moodiness
  7. Overreactions to criticism, both real or imagined
  8. Avoidance of supervisors
  9. Deterioration in physical appearance or grooming
  10. Financial problems

Researchers also note that certain industries and business dynamics seem especially prone to substance abuse problems. One substance abuse counselor said that the extent of substance abuse problems in small businesses often depends on the makeup of its workforce: It is a problem prevalent among employers who hire a lot of entry-level people in industries with high turnover rates and high stress levels. Such conditions can be found in some retail establishments and especially in the restaurant industry, where late working hours, proximity to liquor, and demographic characteristics (prevalently young and single) provide a fertile atmosphere for substance abuse.  Family-owned businesses are also cited as being particularly vulnerable to substance abuse problems, in part because family members may have a more difficult time being objective about a relative’s work performance.

Although tackling the problem of substance abuse can be a daunting one for small business enterprises, substance abuse experts and business researchers note that affected businesses can utilize a variety of steps that have a track record of addiction in curbing workplace drug and alcohol abuse. 

One of the most commonly practiced policies employed by businesses of all sizes is random drug testing, wherein employees (and prospective employees) are required to submit to scientific tests to determine whether they have been using illegal drugs. Many experts cite the popularity of such policies for the apparent downturn in workplace substance abuse incidents in recent years; drug testing remains controversial, however, as opponents argue that it violates individual privacy rights and sometimes hurts employee morale.

Another option for business owners is to actively utilize the hiring/interviewing process to screen for substance abusers. A security management expert once said, “You get what you ask for; if you want people who are free from substance abuse problems – just ask for them in your ad.” He pointed out that studies and anecdotal evidence suggests that ads that include phrases like: “Applicant must have a clean drug history” effectively dissuade many applicants with substance problems from submitting an application. 

Another commonsense approach to screening applicants is to broach the subject on the application form by bluntly inquiring whether the applicant has used illicit drugs in the past. Surprisingly, many people will actually list the drugs they have used.  People who use drugs but do not want to tell you about it will leave the answer blank or put a dash on the answer line. People who have not used drugs will usually write a bold “NONE” in the space provided. It should, however, be noted that even though federal laws do not restrict asking questions about drug abuse, companies should check with their state employment agencies to see if any state laws might apply in this area.

With current employees, business owners are encouraged to establish clear, written guidelines that explicitly detail the company’s stance on drug abuse. The policy should take a clear stance against the use, possession, sale or distribution (particularly in company time) of any mood altering substances. It should also outline a very clear sequence of events that will ensue if the rules are broken. Business owners need to make sure that their substance abuse policies abide by various state and federal laws. Business owners should also make an effort to enlist the support of employees in establishing a drug-free workplace. Everyone has an interest in securing a safe workplace and making sure that colleagues pull their loads.

One of the most effective ways to fight substance abuse is for employees to unite against it. Supervisors can spur such a move by making it clear to their people that alcohol or drug use on the job is absolutely unacceptable.  Business owners should also consider providing an employee assistance program (EAP) for workers. Adopting an employee assistance program is viewed favorably by both management and employees.  Under such a policy, the company agrees to assist employees who have a substance abuse problem. Assistance generally come in form of granting the employee sick leave and paying for a rehabilitation program, and a promise by the company that there will be no retribution against the employee. 

The responsibility for initiating enrolment in such programs, however, rests with the employee.  If management discovers that a worker who has not pursued help through an EAP has a substance abuse problem, he or she may face termination. Employee assistance programs have been hailed by substance abuse experts and businesspeople alike as an effective tool in curbing workplace drug and alcohol abuse, and proponents point out that the cost of such programs is usually far less than the costs that often accrue when a substance-abusing employee is not dealt with.

Finally, when confronted with evidence of workplace substance abuse, managers and company owners are urged to intervene immediately and determine whether a problem exists.  If a problem is found, then the business needs to document the performance of the employee. This will offer the company a greater measure of legal protection in case they need to fire the employee or the employee’s performance spurs legal claims from outside parties.

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