The legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has inspired much discussion about its impact on employers in those states and potentially others. However, employers should be just as concerned about a drug that’s been legal for years: alcohol.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 14 million U.S. workers are substance abusers, and the majority of them (85 percent) abuse alcohol.
In his article “What to Do about Substance Abuse,” Robert Grossman notes that substance abusers are “three-and-a-half times more likely to cause accidents at work and in transit.” Additionally, substance abusers use more sick days than their co-workers (an average of 45 percent) and their health care costs are twice as high as their peers’.
In a survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 60 percent of respondents said their companies are “tough” on illegal drugs but “soft” on alcohol. Additionally, more managers and supervisors reported drinking during the workday and at company functions than other employees.
Perhaps it’s because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable that employers tend to put less emphasis on its negative impact at work. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “many companies do not have alcohol policies; those that do may not enforce them effectively.”
Those companies should know that in a George Washington University survey, one in five workers reported that they’d been “injured or put in danger on the job because of a colleague's drinking, or having to work harder, redo work or cover for a co-worker as a result of a fellow employee's drinking.”
Perhaps it’s because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable that employers tend to put less emphasis on its negative impact at work.
The information above suggests that employers might benefit from becoming more knowledgeable and/or proactive about alcohol abuse. According to John Pompe, manager of disability and behavioral health programs at Caterpillar Inc.: “Alcohol- and substance-related problems present a clear threat to employers in terms of productivity loss, safety, employee engagement, use of supervisory time and health care costs. The problem is that most employees with substance-abuse problems go unrecognized and even more go untreated.”
What should employers look for? According to the American Council for Drug Education, symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Frequent, prolonged and often unexplained absences.
- Involvement in accidents on and off the job.
- Erratic work patterns and reduced productivity.
- Indifference to personal hygiene.
- Overreaction to real or imagined criticism.
- Overt physical signs such as exhaustion or hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech or an unsteady walk.
How should employers treat alcohol abuse? OSHA suggests a comprehensive approach that includes five components:
- A substance-free-workplace policy.
- Supervisor training.
- Employee education.
- Employee assistance.
Such programs – especially when testing is included – must be reasonable and take into consideration employees’ rights to privacy. Additionally, some states, such as California, require employers to reasonably accommodate employees who wish to voluntarily participate in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
Employers should address every kind of substance abuse in the workplace, because every kind of drug use is a threat to everyone involved, regardless of whether it’s illegal or not.
Robin is the training coordinator at Worklogic HR, a human resources outsourcing company in Bakersfield, Calif. In addition to counseling employers on HR issues, she creates and delivers training workshops on communication, supervision and HR best practices. She can be reached at [email protected].