The National Safety Council found that 1 in 12 workers is dealing with an untreated substance use disorder. Even if employers don’t see it, which is more likely with remote and hybrid work arrangements, substance use, misuse and addiction likely remain prevalent among their workforce. Furthermore, the NSC reports that employees with a substance use disorder have double the health care costs as the average employee without one. Beyond health care costs, employee absenteeism and lost productivity climb sharply with substance use.
Substance Misuse and Its Impact on Workplaces
Substance misuse is the unhealthy use of alcohol, drugs or other substances that negatively interfere with a person’s functioning or well-being. It can negatively affect peoples’ physical or emotional well-being, significant relationships, educational achievements, finances and other parts of their lives. Substance misuse also affects productivity, workplace safety and health care costs.
Alcohol and substance misuse or addiction by employees can have serious ramifications for employers. Employees who engage in risky substance use are absent more often, have lower productivity and poor work performance, are more susceptible to injury due to accidents and may have higher health care costs. These costs can represent a significant burden to employers, and the behavior can present the liability of a serious workplace accident due to an employee’s impairment at work. As such, employers can address potential substance misuse amongst their employees and implement policies and protocols to deal with such issues.
Employers can play an essential role in decreasing substance misuse’s social and financial burden and guiding the development of a healthy and productive workforce. Employers can support employees with the following strategies:
- Maintain comprehensive health insurance coverage. When employees have access to an employee benefits package they are more likely to see treatment as coverage reduces the potential cost barrier for seeking help.
- Focus on prevention. Substance misuse is preventable and treatable, with recovery rates comparable to other chronic health problems like diabetes and asthma. If employers promote wellness in the workplace, they can help create healthier and more productive employees and communities.
- Establish an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs can help employees obtain information about supportive resources in the community. Emphasize that an EAP is based on privacy and confidentiality and that enrolling in the program will not jeopardize an employee’s job or reputation. This may encourage more employees to seek help.
- Offer telehealth options. Although common, EAPs may not extend far enough to address employee needs adequately. To avoid privacy concerns, telemedicine and other digital support can help employees overcome stigma barriers. The more options available, the greater the chances they will participate in services.
As with all workplace policies and programs, employers should practice discretion and stay compliant when addressing these serious issues. Generally, information about an employee’s substance misuse, like all medical information about employees, should be kept confidential.
Substance misuse is a growing problem in the United States, and its widespread impact makes it into workplaces. It’s likely to remain prevalent among today’s workforce, and the popularity of remote and hybrid working arrangements can make it even more complicated to identify and offer support and resources.
Unfortunately, addiction is stigmatized, discouraging many people with alcohol and drug issues from seeking treatment. However, employers have an opportunity to develop an employee benefits program that is holistic and addresses prevention, screening and treatment options while also taking deliberate steps to protect employees’ privacy as they receive treatment.