Drug and Alcohol: Top Workplace Concerns

Employers and workers ranked alcohol and drug use as the top problems affecting the workplace, according to a workplace survey. The results were based on a nationwide poll of 508 human resource professionals and 502 workers by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. for Managed Health Network Inc. (MHN) in Los Angeles. The sampling looked at the relationship between worker productivity and personal problems.

Workers believe employee drug abuse problems are the biggest problem at work. Of the employees surveyed, 92 percent said drug abuse was the most harmful worker issue; 87 percent of employers said it was the top issue. Employers ranked alcoholism equally with drugs as a work-site problem at 87 percent, compared to 90 percent of the workers. After substance abuse, workers and employers ranked personal problems such as depression, stress and family problems among the most harmful to job performance.

Additional national surveys on drug abuse estimated that 10 million employed Americans used drugs and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said 10 percent of the nation's workers have an alcohol problem. Of the workers questioned, 14 percent said they experienced problems with alcohol, 7 percent with drugs.

Lives Overlap

"As employers, we would like to think that the workplace is exempt from outside pressures, but the truth is that our home and professional lives often overlap," said Ronald Moreland, chairman of MHN. "Addressing personal problems through employee assistance, wellness, and behavioral health care programs not only results in improved employee functioning and directly effects the bottom line, but it also helps deter an escalation of the problem that can manifest disease within an untreated employee."

Although the majority of the workers and employerssurveyed recognized that drug and alcohol use had the greatest impact at the workplace, they did not agree on how to solve the problems. The majority of the employers (71 percent) offer substance abuse services and other assistance programs at the companies.

Promotes Loyal Workers

Most employees believed that employees, overall, felt a greater loyalty to - and work harder for - companies that are willing to help them. The survey showed 7 percent of employers offer some type of employee service. Sixty-four percent offer employee assistance programs, and 51 percent offer extended behavioral health care services. Behavioral health care includes substance abuse counseling and support, psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. The program covers alcoholism, drug addiction, and other conditions that affect workers.

The majority of the employers in the survey believe that the assistance programs maintain worker confidentiality. Most said they approved and implemented employee programs, with 70 percent noting that companies had a responsibility to help workers through problems such as alcoholism and drug abuse. Eighty-one percent said they would consider offering comprehensive behavioral health care benefits to employees if it would help the company's bottom line.

Programs Save Money

According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association in Arlington, Va., it is less expensive for companies to treat and provide assistance to employees than to hire and train replacement workers.

The most-offered services among the employers' companies were substance abuse services (71 percent); career enhancement or training programs (66 percent); and employee assistance programs (64 percent).

Drug testing is quickly becoming common practice at companies across the country, but in an attempt to get testing on the books, many employers and managers have not taken the time to consider how the policy fits their company.

Employers should tailor their drug testing policy to suit their company's needs, according to Kevin McCloskey, a labor attorney and toxicologist who has spent 20 years in the drug testing field.

He currently works as a consultant for companies in the Salt Lake City, Utah area, and is the author of the book, Workplace Drug Testing, A Handbook for Managers and In-House Counsel.

In an interview, McCloskey offers some practical tips and advice to employers on drug testing policies and practice.

Q.: Does drug testing work?

Kevin McCloskey: I don't think there is any argument about that. A study nearly 10 years ago by researchers in Triangle Park, N.C., found that the prevalence of drugs had a definable effect on the businessman. Drug usage in the workplace had and still has an effect on intangibles such as productivity, reputation, workers' compensation claims. Drug use over the years has leveled off, but hasn't gone away. Studies show 23 to 35 million people are users of illegal drugs and most of those at one point or another have to work - so it does have an effect on the workplace.

Q.: What should employers consider in a policy to curtail employee drug use?

KM: Something I would make clear is, the response to abusive drugs should be a policy response, not a drug testing response. What I mean is, that managers should treat it like they would any other workplace policy - just like others that say you have to show up for work on time or no fighting, that sort of thing. This should not be any different than any regular policy.

Now, in many cases, the policy would also contain drug testing provisions. Now, I want to stress that the response by the employer should not be willy-nilly testing, but setting up a policy to perform testing. So when you look at the problem, think policy and then decide how you're going to tailor the policy to your particular organization.

Q.: How does an employer decide what the policy should contain?

KM: The policy response has a number of considerations, but they need to be tailored to the organization that you're working for. In all cases you would select whether you are going to do testing and if so, what kind of testing. Administrators and business leaders have to make their policies legal, cost effective and fair.

Drug abuse and misuse are not going away in the foreseeable future. Whether we like it or not, it's part of our society. And certain considerations of fairness should be in the minds of the administrators. I don't mean in terms of tolerance, but if you ever find yourself in court, your policy better look fair to the judge or the arbitrator because even a good policy runs the risk of getting you in trouble. If you don't administrate in a uniform manner and it looks like you're discriminating against an employee, boy, you're looking at a lawsuit right there.

Q.: How do you decide what type of testing is for you?

KM: I think because it's a policy response, the decision should rest with the managers and not security personnel. This is not a law enforcement question when you're talking about drugs in the workplace.

One thing that should be on the minds of any good personnel administrator is morale, but if you take what may look like a fascist approach, that may affect productivity and you've created problems in your company where you probably didn't need to. Make it cost effective - make it legal.

There are four elements to consider.

1) Look at the state and federal laws that may affect you. Also consider federal policies such as the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, 30 states have their own drug statutes.

2) Look at the elements of a policy. What is the prohibited activity? Sales or use of drugs on the job? Managers also have to decide about the use of drugs during company time and the use of company vehicles on and off the clock. What does a company do about a salesman who drives drunk using the company car on the weekend?

Also, consider the types of drugs to be prohibited and the scope of testing. When would employees be subjected to the tests? Include discipline options. Many companies offer rehabilitation because it's cheaper to cure somebody of their use of drugs rather than to fire and train someone else.

3) Setting up an administrative structure. Who in the company will enforce the policy? The personnel department? Security department?

4) Implementation of a policy. Fully notify employees of policy and actions the company will take for violations of the policy.

Q.: Any parting word of advise on policies?

KM: Tailor it! Tailor it! The most important things to consider are productivity, the reputation of your company and fairness - fairness to the company and fairness to the employees.

Source: The National Report on Substance Abuse, Volume 9, Number 20; September 28, 1995.

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