There is clear agreement that substance abuse—whether it’s alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs—adversely affects employers and their businesses. Some estimate the loss of productivity for U.S. employers has been as much as $200 billion annually! General concerns for safety at work, injuries on the job, theft, loss of employee morale, and costs related to absenteeism, recruiting, training, turnover, and healthcare utilization illustrate why substance abuse in the workplace is problematic. Below are some tips for dealing with substance abuse in the workplace.

Important dos and don’ts

  1. Don’t be an ostrich.Many employers don’t want to deal with substance abuse in the workplace, so they ignore it, thinking it won’t happen to them or a policy isn’t needed. Don’t be that employer.  Indeed, chronic abusers seek out employers that don’t have substance abuse policies for their workplace. Many employers also tend to ignore or enable the substance abusing employee in his behavior.  If there are suspicions of abuse, meet those suspicions head-on.
  1. Establish a policy against substance abuse in the workplace.This is often referred to as a drug-free workplace policy. The policy should address the prohibition of alcohol use, illegal drug use, and impairment from prescription drug use on the job. If drug counseling and/or other employer-sponsored programs are available, the policy should inform employees about those programs.
  1. Address prescription drugs specifically.Recognize that prescription drug use is legal as long as it doesn’t impair an employee’s work performance. The challenging part is when it’s suspected that the use of prescription drugs is impairing an employee’s work performance. Even more complicated is the suspicion of illegal drug use followed by the revelation that the employee has a medical condition that requires prescription drugs.

It is recommended that you undergo a thorough analysis, in conjunction with the advice of legal counsel, of whether the  prescription drug use is impairing the employee’s performance, or whether it is the underlying medical condition which is  causing the subpar work performance and/or erratic behavior.

  1. Consider post-offer preemployment drug screening.Many employers, as part of their drug-free workplace policy, require a post-offer preemployment drug test. This is seen as a way to eliminate abuse problems in the workplace from the outset.  Although such a test clearly has its benefits, you shouldn’t be under any misconception that it will eliminate substance abuse from the workplace.  Clearly, other abuses arise, and they should be anticipated and addressed in the policy as well.
  1. Consider post-accident and reasonable suspicion drug testing.Many employers also have found that their drug-free workplace policy provides more overall benefit if they also establish drug testing following an on-the-job accident and upon the reasonable suspicion of impairment at the workplace. Planning and education are key when establishing these forms of testing.

You should establish a relationship with a reputable drug-testing facility close to your workplace to quickly and timely have a post-accident test conducted.  Similarly, educating supervisors or managers about the signs of use, abuse, and impairment is essential for all personnel who will be determining on what grounds an employee will be sent to be tested based on the reasonable suspicion of impairment.

Some medical conditions that are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state disability laws cause individuals to exhibit conditions or behaviors that are similar to drug or alcohol use.  Accordingly, educating persons on the similarities and differences is important.

  1. Don’t engage in random drug testing without the advice of counsel.Although employers tend to like the thought of random drug testing as an effective way to detect and deter drug and/or alcohol use at the workplace, random drug testing in many states is extremely limited and should only be implemented under the advice of employment counsel experienced in this very thorny area of the law.

Of course, with regard to any drug testing, you must know and comply with your local ordinances regarding such drug testing.

Bottom line

There is no getting around it. Substance abuse affects us all, regardless of whether we ourselves are using or abusing drugs or our colleagues are doing so.  The above list should help you determine strategic business decisions given the challenging reality of the workplace. Furthermore, it’s recommended that any and all policies regarding substance abuse in the workplace be considered and implemented with the assistance of legal advisers and/or seasoned Human Resources professionals.