The High Cost of Addiction in the Workplace

By The Fix staff 07/11/17

"Substance use disorder may only affect three to five percent of your employees, but those five percent might drain your system quite a lot."

stressed businessman drinking alcohol in the office
Substance misuse can lead to absenteeism, workplace injury, slower work rate, and more.

Each year, substance use and misuse in the work place costs employers billions of dollars in lost productivity and additional healthcare costs, yet many people don’t realize the huge impact that substance use has on employee morale, productivity and — ultimately — profit.

“People don’t realize how large of a problem it is at the workplace,” said Pablo McCabe, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the national and strategic accounts team at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

McCabe says that the impact of addiction on the job can be broken down into several different categories. There is the immediate impact, like absenteeism, or someone who is physically at work but unable to truly be present and focus on their job.

“When people are not present you’re also going to have injuries and accidents,” McCabe said. Those occurrences are the second impact of substance use in the workplace.

Substance use can also affect a company’s production and the quality of work life on the job.

“The substance use might affect the way a person treats other people, whether their boss or people who work for them,” McCabe said.

Finally, the tension from a bad work environment can affect relationships off the job as well.

“If there’s a strain at work or someone has been injured, their partner, spouse or family member has to pick up the slack,” McCabe explained. “There is a ripple effect from once the use begins to when it hits the waters and moves outward.”

Statistics highlight just how pervasive the effects of substance use at work are. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence found that 70 percent of Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and likely bring the negative impact of their addiction into the workplace. In 1992, the cost of on-the-job substance use was estimated at $80.9 billion, and it has likely risen since.

However, the problem isn’t only with illegal drugs. Drinking on the job is also a huge risk: The NCADD reported that 35 percent of emergency room visits because of work-related injuries were made by at-risk drinkers. People with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely to have a work injury than people without drinking problems. Alarmingly, 24 percent of workers reported drinking during the workday within the past year.

While some people might argue that it is not an employer’s place to address substance use, addiction professionals including those at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation believe it is essential for employers to support treatment and recovery, both as a moral imperative and because it makes good business sense.

“Substance use disorder may only affect three to five percent of your employees, but those five percent might drain your system quite a lot with sick leave and litigation,” McCabe said.

One of the most effective ways for workplaces to support treatment and recovery is to have a strong Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs work with Human Resources to promote employee wellness, but they often have a particular focus on helping employees dealing with substance use disorder find the resources that they need to get into recovery. McCabe said that research indicates that for each dollar spent on EAP programs, a company can expect to recoup $3. These programs can also help companies avoid the need to hire new employees.

“Financially it costs a lot more to train someone new for the job than to have supported services, give people a chance and get them back into the job,” he said.

One study of pilots even found that people in recovery are more productive on the job than people who have never misused substances or sought treatment.

“To be living a completely clean, sober life, it’s not surprising to think you’ll benefit from that mental perspective,” McCabe said. “You may be more checked in because of the recovery work that you’re doing.”

Although substance use affects all industries, some are particularly hard hit. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that problematic alcohol use was more prevalent in the accommodation, food service and construction industries.

However, McCabe points out that white-collar workers also lose production because of substance use, especially if the company has a culture that promotes drinking. In addition, research shows that first responders like EMTs, firefighters and police are especially at risk for substance abuse, which they use as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma they see on the job.

“I’ve seen everybody and anybody being affected,” McCabe says.

With the opioid epidemic so prominently in the news, McCabe has seen some employers become more willing to discuss substance use disorder. However, he says that there is still a long way to go in promoting treatment and recovery at work for those who need it.

“Where we could continue to do a better job in the workplace is reducing the stigma, offering EAP programs, and also having some kind of policy about what it means to have a drug-free workplace,” he said.

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