Though people tend to avoid the subject, substance abuse in the workplace is a significant concern and more common than you might think.
1 out of every 11 workers in the U.S. has a substance abuse disorder, with alcohol abuse making up the majority of these cases. This can, of course, be a result of something the employee is struggling with outside of work, but it could also be related to a stressful work environment.
Many employees struggle with their mental health at work due to excessive workloads, toxic work environments, and a lack of benefits or good pay. Poor mental health can lead to substance abuse.
This has recently become more of an issue after many industries and employees were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, like a global pandemic and worldwide shutdowns, people often turn to drugs and alcohol to help get them through. Unfortunately, once they develop these habits, it can be hard to get rid of them — even once they return to work.
No matter what triggered the substance abuse, however, it is essential that employers know how to handle these difficult situations in a supportive, safe, and genuinely helpful way. Handling a substance abuse situation in the wrong way could only end up making the issue worse.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how substance abuse can affect the workplace, as well as offer guidance on how to recognize signs of substance abuse. Learn how to properly support employees who are struggling and get them the help they need.
How Employee Substance Abuse Can Affect the Workplace
When an employee is having issues with substance abuse, it not only affects them as an individual, but it can also affect others around them. This can be a problem when they are at work. It can negatively impact their working relationships, hamper productivity levels, and put them and other employees at risk.
Some work environments, for example, are more hazardous than others, such as construction sites or warehouses. Thus, if a worker in either of those places is using drugs or abusing alcohol, they could put themselves and others at risk when they are operating dangerous tools, equipment, and heavy machinery.
Furthermore, not only does employee substance abuse affect working relationships, safety, and productivity, but it can also end up costing the company a lot of money.
On average, workers who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse miss two more weeks of work a year than their peers. Missed work days can disrupt overall workflow and productivity, so this means alcohol or drug abuse can impact business revenue.
Turnover rates are also much higher when companies deal with employees with substance abuse issues. The cost to find, hire and retrain a new employee comes out to about 50 per cent of the worker’s annual salary. This wastes valuable time and resources.
Human Resources Role in Preventing Substance Abuse
To prevent substance abuse in the workplace — or to lower the chances of workers abusing drugs and alcohol — it is important to make it clear what the company’s policy is for substance use.
It is the responsibility of your HR department to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for everyone, which means they need to clearly and effectively communicate substance abuse policies and programs to all staff.
This can be done by:
- Thoroughly reviewing substance abuse policies, rules, and programs with new hires;
- Regularly reminding existing employees of these policies;
- Discussing how employees can get help for a drinking problem or a drug abuse problem, such as providing information about outside resources, helplines, substance abuse programs, and other community resources;
- Reviewing drug testing policies;
- Discussing how employee performance reviews can be affected by substance abuse;
- Explaining how substance abuse issues are handled and what protections the employee has;
- Providing general information about substance abuse, such as recognizing signs and symptoms and how it can affect one’s health and well-being.
Overall, the goal should be to ensure all employees are as informed as possible about workplace policies concerning drug and alcohol abuse. They should also be provided with the resources they might need to help them cope. However, it is important to do this in a supportive and understanding manner.
While setting strict policies is necessary, trying to scare employees into behaving properly isn’t a good idea. Instead, your HR staff should let your employees know they are there to support and protect them, not to judge them or belittle them.
What Supervisors Can Do To Support a Substance-free Work Environment
It is also essential for leaders in the workplace to set a good example by reinforcing substance abuse policies and advocating for their employees.
Supervisors aren’t just there to supervise — they are also there to guide and support their teams. If a supervisor isn’t a good leader or mentor, they won’t likely be much help to a worker who has an issue with drug or alcohol abuse.
In some ways, managers and supervisors play a more important role in preventing substance abuse than your HR department does. The supervisor often has a closer connection with their workers. They spend more of their time with them, help guide them to grow, and even serve as someone your employees look up to.
Thus, it is important for these leaders to create a positive and healthy environment and to show their teams that they are someone to trust and rely on. To do this, supervisors should:
- Create a positive and inclusive work environment that avoids judgment, humiliation, and inequity;
- Set a good example by being drug-free themselves and reinforcing the substance abuse policies;
- Encourage employees and provide positive feedback to support their growth, letting them know that they care about their experience and well-being;
- Keep the lines of communication open by letting employees know they can come and talk to them about anything and will offer them the support they need;
- Like HR, provide information about programs that can help them if they need it;
- Advocate for employees when they do mess up by treating them like human beings that need help and support, as opposed to chastising them and making them feel bad for what they’ve done.
For supervisors, the goal should be to create a positive and judgment-free work environment that supports the growth of their teams and encourages them to speak up when they need help.
As an employer, you can also do this by creating a workplace culture that supports healthy habits, such as by offering wellness programs at work and providing healthy snacks and drinks.
You can also be mindful of alcohol being provided at work events. Drinking is often a common occurrence at work events, but this can easily encourage or support a drinking problem. Instead, you can throw healthy networking events that are alcohol-free or only provide alcohol with a low ABV, such as wine and beer versus liquor.
In place of doing happy hours at the office with real alcohol, you can provide creative mocktails and make the focus of the event health and wellness, like a yoga class, rather than about drinking alcohol.
How to Prevent Substance Abuse From Negatively Impacting Your Team
The more your company focuses on providing a quality employee experience by promoting a positive and healthy workplace culture, the less likely you are to have issues with employees abusing drugs and alcohol.
However, there are also times when these things are out of your hands, as there may be something outside of the workplace that leads to substance abuse.
In this situation, or in any situation — no matter why the substance abuse is happening — the key thing to remember is to be supportive and nonjudgmental. Show your employees that you care about their well-being and offer them the support and resources they need to get help.
The best way to handle employee substance abuse is with care and consideration. The more supportive you are, the more likely they will be to get the help they need to get better and continue to contribute positively to your work environment.
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Ainsley Lawrence is a writer who loves to talk about good health, balanced life, and better living through technology. She is frequently lost in a good book.