5 Substance Abuse Facts Every HR Professional Should Know

Substance Abuse at Work

Drug and alcohol problems cannot easily be ignored by human resource managers. Seventy percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and federal surveys indicate that around 24% of workers admit to drinking at work at least once in the past year.

Human resource professionals need to be well-equipped to address addiction and related issues so they can curb avoidable expenses and safeguard their greatest asset – their employees.

#1 Addiction Treatment Benefits More Than the Employee.

Substance abuse at work costs employers an eye-opening $81 billion a year, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. This hefty price tag is tallied from a number of substance use-related incidents including absences, poor work productivity, fatalities, injuries, theft, workers compensation claims, and increases in health care and legal costs.

Guiding employees with substance use disorders toward the treatment they need may save companies money in the long run. In addition to avoiding some of the downfalls mentioned above, losing an employee to substance abuse means also losing institutional knowledge and fueling turnover, which may affect coworkers’ productivity. Replacing an employee costs around 25% to 200% of annual compensation. Helping employees through the use of employee assistance programs or other interventions makes sense from both an ethical and fiscal perspective.

#2 EAPs Are Underutilized.

At an average cost of $12 to $40 per employee per year, employee assistance programs are an affordable benefit for some companies. And while they offer valuable resources and can help refer employees to greater levels of care as needed, some studies show that they are underutilized. According to research from the Employee Assistance Society of North America, over one year, only around 3.9% of employees took advantage of clinical assessments or counseling services offered through EAPs. Similarly, survey data by Towers Watson, a global professional services provider, found that though 85% of employers offer stress management services through their EAP, only 5% of employees used them in 2013.

The reasons why more employees aren’t taking advantage of EAP services are unclear. If your company has an EAP, try sending out frequent reminders that this resource is in place. Explain that EAPs can be a good place to start if someone is struggling with mental health and addiction issues, and make sure to remind them that these services are completely confidential.

#3 Drug Relapse Is Common.

Addiction is a chronic disease. Just like other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, relapse is often a normal part of the recovery process. Research indicates about 40-60% of people in recovery from substance abuse will relapse. Just because an employee attends a drug rehab program doesn’t mean that they’re “cured.”

You can support your employee by being attentive to signs that they are at risk for relapse. For example, they may start falling back into old behavioral patterns, missing work or coming in late, or withdrawing from coworkers. It’s best to communicate without confrontation in these cases. Ask them how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to help. This approach will make it less likely that they’ll react defensively and more likely that they’ll accept help.

#4 Addiction Usually Doesn’t Travel Alone.

Research shows that people who have substance use disorders frequently struggle with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, trauma and personality disorders. Using alcohol and drugs sometimes becomes an unwitting attempt to cope with the symptoms of mental illness. Employees may need long-term, specialized care to treat all of their issues simultaneously. In addition to relapse prevention planning, treatment may include behavioral therapies, support groups, psychiatric care and trauma-focused therapies. For some, recovery will be an ongoing process in which the employee also must manage their mental health issues in order to lessen the need to self-medicate with substances.

#5 It Pays to Educate Supervisors on Substance Abuse.

Because supervisors usually have more day-to-day contact with employees than HR staff, it’s critical that they are properly trained to spot signs of substance abuse and appropriately address them. In fact, in one study, researchers at the University of Buffalo found that when employees perceived that their supervisors were educated on substance abuse and thus likely to intervene if they detected it, they were less likely to use alcohol or other drugs on the job. Though this didn’t affect their off-the-job alcohol consumption, it did lower their off-the-job illicit drug use. The research suggests that training supervisors on warning signs and appropriate interventions could reduce drug use.

Recovery Is Possible

Over 23 million Americans are in recovery from substance abuse. With expert help, people do get better. Educating yourself on substance abuse and knowing what resources are available can help your employees get through these issues, become better workers, and live healthier professional and personal lives.

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