Key takeaways:

  • Approximately 1 in every 11 workers in the US (9% of total workforce) struggled with a substance or alcohol use disorder in the past 12 months
  • 79.3% (41.2 million people) are employed either full or part-time and 76.1% (12.4 million people) of heavy drinkers are employed 
  • Male-dominated professions and businesses often have higher rates of alcohol-related problems than female-led ones

Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have a high toll on society, including in the workplace. Each year, employee drug and alcohol misuse cost billions of dollars to companies in the form of absenteeism, lower productivity, injuries, legal problems, and increased healthcare and insurance costs. For these reasons, corporations have a vested interest in addressing drug and alcohol problems in the workplace in order to protect both the health and wellbeing of their employees as well as company interests and profits.

How does drug and alcohol abuse affect the workplace?

Drug and alcohol use among employees affects the workplace, even when an employee is not actively abusing drugs or alcohol at work or coming to work under the influence of a substance. As a person’s addiction to drugs or alcohol advances, more areas of their life, functioning, and health are impacted, causing ripple effects that can begin to affect their job.[1][2][3] 

There are four main areas that are affected by drug and alcohol use in the workplace:[1][3]

  • Premature death, chronic health issues, and increased medical costs 
  • Increased risk for workplace injuries, accidents and non-work injuries
  • Increased rates of absenteeism and overuse of sick and paid leave time
  • Loss of productivity, impaired performance, and lower quality of work

These four main areas can cause a range of different problems for companies and corporations, including:[1][2][3]

  • Frequent tardiness and unreliable attendance
  • Overuse of sick and paid leave days
  • After-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance
  • Poor decision making
  • Loss of efficiency and productivity
  • Overall lowered quality of work
  • Poorer workplace relationships
  • Mood and behavior problems that affect workplace culture and morale
  • Trouble with attention and concentration to detail and completion of tasks
  • Inappropriate behaviors in the workplace (hostility, anger outbursts, etc.)
  • Higher turnover/training of new employees
  • Disciplinary procedures

The presence of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace is a more common problem than most realize. Here are some statistics on the prevalence of drug and alcohol misuse in the US workplace:[1][4][5]

  • Approximately 1 in every 11 workers in the US (9% of total workforce) struggled with a substance or alcohol use disorder in the past 12 months
  • 79.3% (41.2 million people) are employed either full or part-time and 76.1% (12.4 million people) of heavy drinkers are employed 
  • Of these 3 out of 4 reported having an alcohol use problem, making it the most common type of substance use disorder in the US (affecting 14 million US adults)
  • Certain fields have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction, including 19% of construction workers, 15.6% of service workers, and about 13% of those in transportation, maintenance, sales, entertainment, and machinery operations
  • Workers with active substance use disorders are absent for an average of 1.5 more weeks each year than workers without an addiction
  • Absenteeism is 4 to 8 times higher for workers who struggle with an alcohol use disorder
  • Workers who have recovered from an addiction and are no longer using drugs or alcohol miss less days for medical problems than workers without addictions
  • Alcohol use problems cost US companies between 33-68 billion dollars each year in increased insurance, healthcare, and lowered productivity and attendance costs
  • Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace accounts for 65% of on-the-job accidents and that 38% to 50% of all workers' compensation claims are related to the abuse of alcohol or drugs in the workplace.
Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

Alcohol & drug abuse and work culture

As stated above, there are certain industries where drug or alcohol use is more prevalent, including some fields where drinking or using drugs on the job is commonplace. For instance, service, construction, and maintenance jobs often have high rates of workplace drug and alcohol use, which contributes to thousands of accidents, injuries, and deaths each year.[1][4][5]

There are also many white-collar industries that allow and even encourage drinking and drug use in their culture. Financial industries, consultancy roles, and positions that require high-level networking tend to have cultures that glorify drug and alcohol use as a method of securing deals and contracts and enticing new clients. 

Much like alcohol, drug use in the workplace can lead to the same impacts such as absenteeism, loss of productivity, and workplace injuries or fatalities. Unlike alcohol, many substances can be abused whilst on the job without coworkers or supervisors noticing.[1][2][3][4] This includes the abuse of prescription medications, which may impair a person’s ability to function, think clearly, or operate equipment, or complete tasks necessary to their job.

Male-dominated professions and businesses often have higher rates of alcohol-related problems than female-led ones. This is due to the idea that alcohol-related activities, such as work lunches or business networking, build solidarity and conformity among male workers. This ideology leads to a lax approach towards drugs and alcohol and can cause substantial disruption and a loss of productivity.[1][2][4]

There is also the added correlation between workplaces that tolerate drinking culture and the idea of the “high-functioning alcoholic”. High-functioning alcoholics are those who are able to drink high levels of alcohol but still maintain a relatively stable life, including in the workplace. The misconception is that being able to function while intoxicated with alcohol or other drugs means that there is no issue or worry of addiction. This is far from true as while being able to function on alcohol may hide any issue, the risk to health and lifestyle is still very much present. 

Many of these workers may believe themselves to be ‘high functioning’ alcoholics or addicts who are able to prevent their addictions from impairing their performance at work, which is usually not the case. Addiction tends to be a progressive disease that worsens over time, especially when left untreated. Over time, drug and alcohol abuse tend to affect and impair a person’s ability to function at work, spilling over into their professional life.

Workplace drug abuse

There are many risks associated with drug abuse in the workplace. Much like alcohol, it can lead to the same impacts such as absenteeism, loss of productivity, and workplace injuries or fatalities. Unlike alcohol, many substances can be abused whilst on the job without coworkers or supervisors noticing. This is especially true of prescription drugs such as opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines, or over-the-counter medications, which often come in pill form and don’t have any direct physical indicators of abuse. 

Central nervous system depressants such as painkillers or benzos can be extremely hazardous in jobs where people are operating heavy machinery or driving. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace accounts for 65% of on-the-job accidents and that 38% to 50% of all workers' compensation claims are related to the abuse of alcohol or drugs in the workplace. [7]

The problem is heightened when looking at the scale of prescription drug abuse.in 2017, an estimated 18 million Americans had misused prescription drugs in the past year and more than 66% of the population currently use some form of prescription medication. [8]

The cost of alcohol and drugs in the workplace

Contrary to common societal preconceptions, many people suffering from a substance use disorder manage to remain employed. In fact, SAMHSA estimates that around 70% of people with a SUD are currently employed.[2] While the exact cost of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is hard to calculate, it is estimated that drug and alcohol misuse could total 70-80 billion dollars each year, or possibly even more. 

 

This cost is largely attributed to absenteeism, loss of productivity, and healthcare costs. There is also the additional cost of workplace theft for funding drug and alcohol habits as well as other employees losing productivity due to workplace disruptions caused by drugs and alcohol.[1][2]

Read our guide to find out more about the cost of addiction.

Signs of workplace drug and alcohol abuse

As the problems that substance abuse in the workplace causes suggest, there are telltale signs that someone may be suffering from a substance use disorder. Some of the key indicators that someone may be abusing include [1][2]:

  • A fall in work efficiency in terms of volume, accuracy, or promptness
  • Frequent tardiness with vague excuses
  • Excessive use of sick or leave days (especially after the weekend)
  • Requesting immediate vacation days
  • Decreased personal hygiene
  • Physical indicators (i.e. track marks, smelling of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, etc.)
  • Increased error rates, including accidents or near misses
  • Trying to mask substance abuse (e.g. taking breath mints frequently)
  • Inexplicably asking for a raise or complaining about finances
  • Mood swings, irritability, or conduct problems
  • Increased apathy towards work or lowered quality of work
  • Poor interactions with coworkers, bosses, or clients
  • Signs of intoxication (jittery, slurring words, drowsiness, cloudy thinking, etc.)
  • Impaired coordination or judgment
  • Signs of withdrawal (trembling or shaking hands, sickness, weight loss, etc.)
  • Excuses, lying, stealing, or dishonesty
  • Asking for pay advances 
  • Missing deadlines or inconsistent performance at work
  • Markedly increased or decreased energy levels

Recognizing the warning signs of substance abuse in the workplace early can mean intervention and help for employees is more successful and the risk to the business is decreased.

What can the workplace do to help?

The workplace can play a key role in helping a person struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction get the help they need. Addiction is a treatable disease, and seeking treatment greatly increases the likelihood of recovery. Employees who get addiction treatment are often able to overcome their addiction and become highly productive and valued employees. Employee assistance programs, medical leave policies, and supportive leaders all play a key role in helping to make treatment for substance use disorders more easily accessible for employees.[1][3]

According to the Department of Labor, implementing work-based programs and initiatives focused on reducing substance abuse has massive benefits to both employees and businesses. A study of the economic impact of substance abuse treatment found significant improvement in job-related performance, such as [6]:

  • 91% decrease in absenteeism
  • 88% decrease in problems with supervisors
  • 93% decrease in mistakes in work
  • 97% decrease in on-the-job injuries 

Businesses can also improve substance abuse awareness by creating substance abuse policies for employees, offering health benefits that provide coverage for substance use disorders, reducing stigma and creating awareness in the workplace, using company wellness programs to educate, and in some cases by using mandatory drug tests (especially for those who work with dangerous equipment that can endanger lives when used while intoxicated).[1][2][3] You can find out more about drug testing and how long substances stay in the system here.

Workplace substance abuse and addiction treatment

Reducing rates of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction benefits both employees and employers, creating a win-win scenario for our society. Individuals who have stable employment are often motivated into treatment when they know their job and income depend on it, creating more of an incentive to get help. Employers can play a key role in encouraging employees to seek treatment through early identification of risk factors and by creating and enforcing strong drug and alcohol policies. Also, offering comprehensive benefits packages that include addiction treatment, EAP benefits, and flexible leave packages for those in treatment can further encourage employees to seek treatment.[1][2][3]

 

Some people may be worried about the toll taking time off to attend an inpatient recovery facility may take on their work, but more employers are enacting wellness policies to make this easier. Anti-discrimination laws and ADA protections also help to protect a person’s job when seeking treatment for addiction, which falls under these protections. Taking the first steps towards improving your mental and physical health by seeking detox, inpatient rehab, or outpatient addiction treatment should be a top priority for anyone struggling with an addiction. To find out more about your options, speak with an addiction consultant today.