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Supervisors Should Be Trained to Identify, Confront Workplace Substance Abuse

April 5, 2012
Employees who drink or abuse other substances during the workday can spell disaster for obvious reasons. A new study from the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) suggests that supervisors who demonstrate they can identify workplace substance abuse are more likely to have an impact on preventing or putting a stop to this dangerous behavior.

According to Michael Frone, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RIA and research associate professor of psychology, employers must do more than simply be present and visible to help control on-the-job substance abuse. Workers must be convinced that their supervisors will both notice substance abuse and act on it.

"It's only when employees think their supervisor knows how to detect substance use – and is willing to do something about it – that employees' drinking and drug use on the job decreases," explains Michael Frone, PhD, senior research scientist at RIA and research associate professor of psychology.

In the course of the study, 2,429 participants, ranging in age from 18-65 and who were employed in the civilian labor force, were interviewed in a random telephone survey for 45 minutes.

Frone found that workers reported drinking less on the job when they thought their supervisors could detect substance-use problems and were willing to take corrective action. And while supervisor enforcement had no relation to employees' off-the-job alcohol use and intoxication, it did produce lower levels of drug use both on and off the job.

"The finding for off-the-job illicit drug use is not surprising because company policies often sanction such behavior. Even so, supervisor enforcement had a stronger relationship to on-the-job compared with off-the-job illicit drug use," said Frone.

Supervisor Training

The study results suggest that the factors influencing employee substance use may be more complex than researchers previously thought. Furthermore, employers may benefit by training supervisors in how to spot and confront employee substance. This training could help reduce alcohol and illicit drug use on the job, thereby improving work force productivity.

"To the extent that supervisor social control reduces substance use at work, our other research suggests that it may also reduce stress and improve morale among the majority of employees who do not engage in such behavior," Frone said.

This study is part of a $1.4 million research project, "Workplace Substance Use: A National Prevalence Study," funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The results were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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