While many aspects of wellness, including nutrition, exercise, and sleep, are openly talked about, stigma remains a powerful barrier to the discussion of addiction—also referred to as substance use disorder (SUD).
Addiction in the workplace occurs across all industry types and affects approximately 40.3 million American adults. With such alarming numbers and dangerous mental and physical side effects, it is no surprise that addiction has a devastating impact on the lives of many employees, their families, and their employers; thus, it needs to be adequately addressed.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have had to deal with overwhelming stress, grief, and anxiety over the past two years. Sudden and disruptive remote work arrangements erased the work-life balance for many employees, making it easier to turn to substances—both legal and illicit—in order to cope, even during the workday.
As pandemic lockdowns and restrictions dragged on, millions turned to alcohol, drug, and opioid use to deal with their worsening mental health, high-stress jobs, or simply to alleviate isolation and boredom. But the impacts of this “coping mechanism” went well beyond just home and family life. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, almost 70% of people with a substance use disorder are employed, and unaddressed addictive behaviors at work are a growing, costly and dangerous problem for employers.
Employees struggling with SUDs cost companies billions each year in lost productivity, increased healthcare expenses, workers compensation claims, crime-related costs, and absenteeism.
In fact, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction costs companies a staggering $740 billion per year. Addiction affects the workplace in three significant ways:
1. Direct Effect
Direct effect is when an employee uses substances during work hours or shows up to work under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Using alcohol or other drugs on the job may have severe consequences, especially in industries such as construction, aviation, or heavy equipment operation.
2. Indirect Effect
Indirect or second-hand effects are those that impact coworkers. For example, tobacco use and second-hand smoke cause indirect harm to others in the environment, even if they do not smoke tobacco themselves.
Similarly, drug and alcohol misuse can have indirect effects such as increased risk of injury in the workplace, unplanned absences, and employers having to adjust for staffing shortages. When one employee’s productivity is impaired, the performance and safety of others in the same environment may also be compromised.
3. Hangover Effect
As expected, a hangover from drug or alcohol use also contributes to productivity issues in the workplace. The hangover effect impacts presenteeism (being at work but not fully present or productive), late arrival or calling in sick, and conflicts in the workplace due to increased irritability. These problems may seem inconspicuous and not initially linked to substance use; however, their impacts will worsen over time if the substance misuse is not addressed or effectively treated.
The problem with addictions is that many companies want to avoid the topic or simply do not tolerate any substance use problems whatsoever. While there are specific roles such as heavy-equipment operators or airline and public transportation workers where zero-tolerance is understandable, most employers can benefit by implementing policies that encourage treatment and foster an anti-stigma work culture.
1. Medical or Recreational Drug Use
Labor shortages continue to plague the market, particularly in retail, hospitality, transportation, healthcare, and social assistance. To help address hiring challenges, employers can widen their pool of applicants by not immediately disqualifying candidates with a positive drug test for marijuana if they have a state-issued card permitting medical use.
2. Prescription Abuse
Missed workdays and lost productivity from the misuse of prescription painkillers cost employers an estimated $25.6 billion a year. And zero-tolerance policies can still miss substance use problems that stem from prescription abuse. For example, if an applicant or employee tests positive for opioids and presents a valid prescription, their drug test result will be considered irrelevant.
3. Expanded Definition of Addiction
While the opioid crisis has been in the spotlight, addiction also includes tobacco, alcohol, and other challenges in the broader category of behavioral health. Some of the most widespread behavioral addictions are related to gambling, binge-eating disorders, shopping, gaming, and video games.
The circumstances surrounding drug and alcohol use are as varied as the lives and personalities of employees themselves. Clearly, not all drug and alcohol use can be labeled as “dangerous” or “harmful.” Some people occasionally experiment with drugs and many drink socially but never become addicted. On the other hand, employees can engage in harmful addictive behaviors that can negatively impact themselves, other employees, and the entire company.
While no-tolerance policies portray addiction as a black-and-white issue, experience and research reveals a spectrum of addiction and substance use challenges. In most cases, open conversations and access to effective, affordable and equitable treatment has been demonstrated as the most effective way to address and prevent substance use disorders in the workplace.
As a result of the powerful stigma still attached to addiction, employees are often reluctant to seek help over fears of being punished or getting fired. To overcome the stigma of addiction and address hidden SUDs, corporate culture and leadership can set the tone for a supportive, effective, cost-saving approach that deals with harmful behaviors before they become serious problems.
There is a widespread false belief that those addicted to substances simply lack the strength, resilience, or willpower to stop. Contrary to this popular belief, addictions are not a character flaw but a chronic medical disease - it takes more than determination to overcome them. Through extensive research, we know that drugs alter the brain structure and function - making the path to recovery complex. Companies can effectively and compassionately address this growing problem in several ways.
1. Educate Employees
As with other chronic diseases or health issues, companies actually benefit from openly discussing substance use problems. Many organizations have programs that give employees the knowledge and tools needed to access treatment confidentiality and without fear of repercussions.
By proactively offering assistance and raising awareness without stigmatizing or ostracizing, organizations can address problems before they turn into issues. Implementing formal anti-stigma campaigns, educating employees, and supporting them through accepting language and DE&I efforts creates a psychologically safe workplace.
3. Offer Assistance
Through benefits and human resources staff and programs, employers can play a crucial role on the road to long-term SUD recovery by offering high-value mental and substance use benefits. Flexible leave packages, modified work schedules, access to digital health, and broad benefits packages can lead to a more productive work environment that values retention and lowers costs.
Addiction in the workplace is a national issue, and employers can be part of the solution. Creating an addiction-free, stigma-free, and recovery-supportive workplace that is safe and productive is a win-win for both employees and employers. For more information, visit our resources library or contact us directly.
About the Author
Ivana Radevska is an HR and benefits content expert at Shortlister. She speaks three languages and enjoys writing guides for HR professionals.
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