Part 2: How to Treat Workplace Substance Abuse

Nearly 73 percent of illegal drug users in the United States are employed. To address this issue, businesses can establish comprehensive programs that offer "win-win" situations for employers and employees.

That's part of the message of September"s observance of the 10th National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. This year"s theme is "Addiction Treatment: Investing in People for Business Success."The event is sponsored by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"American companies concerned about productivity and safety issues should take the lead in allocating resources to develop sound workplace substance abuse policies," said CSAT Director H. Wesley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H.

The problem is especially formidable for manufacturing and construction industries (To read Part 1, see Sept. 1 news item on our Web site.). As a result, a substance abuse program should reflect a company's commitment to establishing and maintaining a workplace free of substance abuse, according to Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace.

A typical comprehensive program includes five components: a written policy statement, supervisor training, employee education and awareness, employee assistance for providing help, and drug and alcohol testing.

Before writing the policy, Working Partners suggests conducting a needs assessment survey to help you better understand the company's situation and determine what you want the program to accomplish. Remember, workers should be your allies in this process.

A written policy has three basic parts: an explanation of why you are implementing a program, a description of substance abuse-related behaviors that are prohibited, and an explanation of consequences for policy violators. The policy should identify all elements of the substance abuse program.

Step 2: Train Supervisors

Supervisors are responsible for identifying and addressing performance problems that may be the result of substance abuse. While not expected to diagnose conditions, supervisors should be able to identify the signs of poor job performance.

Thus, supervisors should be trained to understand the company's substance abuse policy and procedures, to identify and help resolve employee performance problems, and to know how to refer employees to available assistance.

Step 3: Educate Employees

Educating workers is considered a critical step in achieving the program's objectives. A basic program, then, should achieve several objectives:

  • Provide information about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Describe the impact that substance abuse can have on workplace safety, accident rates, health care costs, absenteeism, productivity, product quality and overall bottom line.
  • Explain, in detail, how the policy applies to every employee and consequences for policy violations.
  • Describe how the basic components of the program work. Components might include an employee assistance program (EAP) and drug and alcohol testing.
  • Explain how employees and their dependents, if included, can get help for their substance abuse problems.

Step 4: Provide Employee Assistance

Many companies use EAP, a job-based program intended to assist workers whose job performance is negatively affected by personal problems, including substance abuse. Employers have found that EAPs are cost-effective because they help reduce accidents, workers' compensation claims, absenteeism and employee theft.

EAPs, if they are to be successful, should be viewed as a confidential source of help. Workers, though, should understand that it will not shield them from disciplinary action for continued poor performance or policy violations, according to Working Partners.

Step 5: Drug and Alcohol Testing

By itself, testing is not a substance abuse program, but it can be an effective deterrent to drug use and an important tool to help employers identify workers who need help. Consider who will be tested, when testing will take place, what substances will be tested, what consequences workers will face who test positive, and who will administer the testing program.

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