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Addiction In The Workplace: What You Need to Know

20 million workers across the U.S. report alcohol-related impairment at work...

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It was a long day at the job and you leave work at 7:00 p.m. to head home. Once home, you decide to go out drinking with some friends to burn off some steam. After the night out, you come home with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.25, so when starting the car up to head to work the next day at 8:00 a.m., you still have a BAC level of 0.14. A hangover headache kicks in around 10:00 a.m. at the all-staff meeting, and so you chug some water and are down to a 0.05 level by lunchtime.

This scenario regarding alcohol is all too common among U.S. employees. Roughly 20 million workers across the United States report alcohol-related impairment at work at least once in the past year. Other drug use is a concern as well. In 2016, more than one in twenty-five Americans tested positive for illicit drugs in workplace drug screens. Alcohol and other drugs in the workplace are not issues that organizations can ignore. In fact, more than 75 percent of individuals with alcohol or illicit drug use disorders continue to maintain their employment but the workplace impact often goes undetected, with the ill-effects attributed to other factors. Of note, however, of the approximately $600 billion economic cost that is related to alcohol and other drug use problems in the U.S. each year, the vast majority is due to lost productivity.

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While the consequences from alcohol and other drug use do not always seem obvious, these can affect organizations’ bottom line. In fact, alcohol and other drug use disorders cost American businesses and organizations an average of 81 billion dollars in lost profits every year. This is due to losses in productivity, high turnover rates, increases in absenteeism, utilization of sick time, and decreases in quality of work. Of the 75 percent of employees that maintain employment and engage in substance use, over 42 percent report feeling a decrease in productivity as a result.

Although job losses directly related to alcohol or other drug use are associated with more chronic and severe levels of substance use disorder, the use of these substances negatively impact individuals’ job attendance and performance long before more dramatic consequences occur. ­

In addition, alcohol and other drug use increases the number of occupational injuries and fatalities, affecting the health and well-being of the employees. In emergency room visits for workplace related injuries, breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16 percent of cases. Over 10 percent of workplace fatalities involve alcohol.

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Also, although not always obvious to others, the lethargy and short-term residual cognitive impairments that can follow after a night of heavy drinking, can increase safety concerns on the job for themselves and others.

Beyond the bottom line of the organization and the health of employees, alcohol and other drug use can begin to affect the attitudes and culture of an organization, lowering moral, and decreasing motivation, engagement, and trust.


There are many ways in which employers can work to create a healthier work environment. Employers can begin to educate themselves and employees on identifying the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug use disorders, and set up clear drug-free workplace policies. Increasing awareness and clarifying expectations can be a good first step.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) have been found to be highly effective, but a majority of organizations, especially smaller sized organizations, do not have these programs in place. EAP programs work to encourage and support addiction treatment and recovery through confidential assessments, short term counseling, and resource referrals.

Team awareness and peer-based prevention programs are also found to be cost-effective and increase employee functioning. These programs utilize small group formats and social support, to help employees initiate or maintain recovery. In cases where employees are remote, web-based programs are becoming available for use.

Having screening programs in place that can detect alcohol or other drug use and related impairments in functioning can increase safety for those individuals themselves as well as their colleagues. Currently, over 50 percent of organizations require pre-employment drug screenings for all new hires, especially in high-risk industries such as mining, construction, and public safety. As chronic medical conditions, it is important also that organizations combine screening and detection programs with resource and assistance programs to help employees with substance use disorders find the treatment and supports needed to stay in remission.

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Treatment for addiction, facilitated within or by the workplace, has been shown to be successful in increasing employee legal, mental and social functioning, as well as decreasing absenteeism rates, workplace conflict, and productivity problems upon return from treatment. Investing in employee treatment yields high returns, with an estimated gain of 23 percent among employees with an income of at least $45,000 per year or an estimated gain of 64 percent for employees earning at least $60,000 per year.

Alcohol and other drug use disorders in the workplace are costly and dangerous for organizations if not addressed. Employers can play a key role in the recovery process, motivating employees for positive change and facilitating treatment engagement and retention, ultimately enhancing health and saving lives. Fortunately, there are many examples of successful programs and helpful resources.


For Employees: Contact human resources or your supervisor to ask about whether your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), peer based, or web-based programs available to you.

For Employers: Research has shown programs addressing alcohol and other drug use in the workplace to be cost effective, contributing to the health and well-being of the employee and organization. In a time of high national rates of alcohol and other drug use disorders, it is important that organizations address this growing public health crisis by supporting employees seeking treatment and recovery. To create a safe and healthy workplace, look to increase organizational awareness and provide resources and support to staff through employee assistance programs (EAP), peer and web-based programs, and drug testing programs.

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