Employers are often faced with employees who show the signs of problematic substance use while in their employ. According to The International Labour Organisation Code of Conduct on the management of alcohol-and drug-related issues in the workplace, an employer should assist such an employee to obtain access to counselling, treatment and rehabilitation. However, “prevention is better than cure” and there is an excellent case for educating your workers on alcohol or substance abuse as a critical step in organisations addressing substance abuse.
“…prevention is better than cure” and there is an excellent case for educating your workers on alcohol or substance abuse…”
The role of organisational culture and workplace factors in problematic substance use
Organisational culture, including the attitude, behaviours and expectations around drinking in work-related environments, contain important factors which can contribute to substance use problems, such as:
- isolation: among employees who work in isolated areas or are separated from family and friends as a result of boredom, loneliness or lack of social interaction,
- physical availability of drugs and alcohol on the worksite
- interpersonal factors including negative workplace relationships, bullying and harassment,
- poor working conditions, including hot and dangerous environments,
- lack of supervision,
- lack of opportunity for promotion,
- inadequate job design and training, that may lead to low job satisfaction or work-related stress,
- organisational change, such as organisational restructuring, taking a job transfer or redundancy,
- shift work or extended working hours.
“Absenteeism of employees with alcohol and drug problems was three times higher than for other employees.”
Why is the prevention of problematic drug and alcohol abuse among employees important?
For the organisation:
According to research conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the effects of abuse of alcohol and drug among employees that negatively impacts productivity and profitability, the following was found:
- Absenteeism of employees with alcohol and drug problems was three times higher than for other employees
- Employees with chemical dependence problems claimed sick benefits three times more than other employees and also made compensation claims five times more than other employees
- 20% to 25% of injuries in the workplace involved employees under the influence of alcohol
- Drugs and alcohol supplied at work amount to 15% to 30% of all accidents at work.
- It is not only heavy drinking that could result in hazardous incidents at work. Clinical studies have shown that even low quantities of alcohol consumption result in impaired performance.
Preventing problematic alcohol and drug use among employees is important because as a result of their substance use, they may experience social, financial, psychological, physical or legal problems. It is interesting to note that the use of a range of substances, both legal and illegal, can be anywhere on a spectrum from recreational (or therapeutic) to frequent to problematic use. “Problematic substance use” tends to refer to alcohol or other drug use which causes problems for an individual. This could either be at the recreational or dependent end of the spectrum.In other words, it is not necessarily the frequency of alcohol and other drug use which is the primary problem, but the effects that substance use has on the user’s life.
“…it is not necessarily the frequency of alcohol and other drug use which is the primary problem, but the effects that substance use has on the user’s life.”
Here are the facts that dispel five myths about employees who experience problematic substance abuse:
- Myth: People experiencing problematic substance use don’t want to work.
Fact: Like other people, many people experiencing problematic substance use issues are interested in working and find that work is a good reason or a motivator to address their problematic substance use.
- Myth: Work is too stressful for people experiencing problematic substance use issues.
Fact: As with other members of our community, work improves self-esteem, adds a sense of purpose, and contributes towards recovery in positive ways for many people with substance related disorders.
- Myth: People experiencing problematic substance use benefit from extensive pre-vocational assessments and work readiness programs before further employment options are pursued. Fact: Past problematic substance use is not a consistent predictor of employment success or failure. The best predictors of employment success for people experiencing problematic substance use and co-occurring mental illness are expressed interest in working and previous employment history.
- Myth: People who are able to recover from substance related disorders are always at significant risk for relapse.
Fact: Relapse of a substance related disorder is always a possibility, but employment may protect people from relapse. Employment is associated with continued recovery and relapse is associated with unemployment, housing instability, and loss of social supports.
- Myth: People who abuse/use substances problematically lack good working skills.
Fact: Many people with substance related disorders have a variety of interests, employment histories, and core work skills that may be valuable in any job.
“It is important to communicate the value that an organisation places on the personal health and safety of its employees and their families.”
Linking prevention education and health promotion
It is important to communicate the value that an organisation places on the personal health and safety of its employees and their families. As a part of this, health and wellness topics such as stress management, nutrition and weight management, physical activity and exercise, and pain management offer a great opportunity to provide information and educational materials on problematic substance use prevention. This way, the training material can be targeted to the needs and interests of individuals within your specific workplace. Here are three examples:
- Stress management
Relying on alcohol or drugs to deal with problems and emotions can often create more problems. Identify social and emotional rewards that people seek from drugs, including alcohol and prescriptions, then identify healthful alternatives to relieve stress and meet other social and emotional needs. Stories from people who have embraced healthier alternatives and are reaping the rewards can motivate participants toward behavior change. Modelling opportunities that promote the use of healthful alternatives and the avoidance of substance misuse can build self-efficacy and teach skills.
- Pain management
Pain is a common reason people seek medical treatment. Opioid pain relievers have a high potential for misuse, which has led to many overdose deaths and injuries, worldwide. Beyond educating on the danger of prescription and over the counter drugs, you may wish to consider including alternative therapies for pain treatment when designing and reviewing employer-sponsored health care coverage.
- Nutrition, weight management, and exercise
Beyond educating on the dangers of abusing diet pills, these health promotion topics can be used to raise awareness about the tendency of certain drugs, including alcohol, to lower inhibitions and lessen the effectiveness of dietary and exercise plans. Testimonials from individuals who have changed their behaviours within the context of their weight management, nutrition, or exercise plans can help motivate other employees.