drug abuse

Employee Drug Abuse Weighs on Employers

3 minute read

Drug abuse is costing U.S. employers some $81 billion annually due to employee illness, absences and lost productivity, and the problem has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence found that 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who have had two or fewer jobs.

And now, with the changes in marijuana laws sweeping the country, employers are concerned that more people (read employees) will get hooked on drugs.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence found that 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. And as changes to marijuana laws sweep the country, employers are concerned that more people (read employees) will get hooked on drugs.

As of April 2021, 19 states have recrational marijuana laws on their books and 36 states have medical marijuana laws in place. More states have pending legislation to legalize recreational use.

Additionally, the number of overdoses from other drugs has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In the 12-month period ending Aug. 31, 2020,  there were 88,295 drug overdose deaths, a record high that is almost 19,000 more deaths (27%) than the prior 12-month period.

Drug use, abuse or addiction by employees can lead to a range of problems for businesses, such as lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft and poor employee morale, and increases in health care usage, legal liabilities and workers’ compensation costs. Also, if workers are using drugs while on the job, the risk of those issues increases exponentially.

Some of the problems that drugs can cause in the workplace are:

  • Sluggishness and impaired job performance.
  • The employee setting up purchases or using drugs at work.
  • Selling illegal drugs to or arranging purchases for co-workers.
  • Psychological effects due to drug use by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects an employee’s job performance.

Signs of drug use in the workplace

According to the council, the following job performance and workplace behaviors may be signs of possible workplace drug problems:

  • Inconsistent work quality.
  • Poor concentration/lack of focus.
  • Lower productivity or erratic work patterns.
  • Increased absenteeism or on-the-job “presenteeism.”
  • Unexplained disappearances from the job site.
  • Carelessness, mistakes or errors in judgment.
  • Needless risk taking.
  • Disregard for safety of self and others.
  • Extended lunch periods and early departures.
  • Odd/socially unacceptable workplace behavior.

What can you do?

You should have a policy in place that strictly prohibits your staff from working while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You should treat drug use at work with the same severity as you would drinking on the job.

Document any complaints or concerns raised by co-workers or clients if they suspect one of your employees to be using drugs.

It is important that two people at management level also observe the individual’s behavior, with both of them documenting their observations in detail, which should include (but not be limited to):

  • Odors
  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated or constricted eyes
  • Emotional issues such as agitation or irritability
  • Drowsiness
  • Excessive sweating.

Once the situation is documented and everyone is in agreement, only then should you meet with the employee for a discussion of what has been observed.  And always have a second party at the meeting to act as a witness. You then have the options to follow whatever is stated in your company policy. 

Drug testing is a legal issue and may depend on your company policy as well as any state laws prohibiting testing. Consult with your lawyers about the legality of testing workers you suspect of being under the influence. 

Depending on your policy if they are found to be using on the job, you can use your discretion about how you want to handle it. If they are a valued employee, you may want to refer them to your employee assistance program as well as a drug-free workplace program, which help refer staff members and their families to community resources and services to help fight drug abuse. 

Studies have found that employers with successful employee assistance and drug-free workplace programs reported improved morale and productivity, as well as decreases in absenteeism, workplace injuries and accidents, downtime and theft.

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