Is employee substance abuse giving you a headache?

Employers have enough to worry about without having to concern themselves with whether or not any of their employees are abusing substances. Large organizations will often have procedures in place to address the problem, such as policies that include drug testing, but smaller concerns may not be as aware of the problem or know what to do about it if it affects someone.

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So what should an employer do and why is it important?

Protecting the business and the workforce

One of the most important aspects of business for an employer is to ensure that the workplace is safe. If substance abuse issues are not addressed then workers will be at greater risk and the business could have to deal with serious problems.

It is estimated that many billions of dollars are lost every year due to substance abuse. Major expenses that employers can face include higher costs for healthcare when injury or illness occurs and increased claims for disability and compensation. Another, often unforeseen, consequence can be loss of productivity due to persistent absenteeism or illness, poor performance by employees leading to a loss of confidence by clients and customers, and a serious hit to profitability.

There is a much higher risk of accidents affecting not just an employee who is abusing a substance but for colleagues as well. An example would be if someone impaired by a drug was operating machinery or driving a car or lorry – the potential for putting their own life and the lives of co-workers in danger cannot be ignored.

Common substances that are abused

It should be remembered that not all substances that may cause problems are illegal, though the majority are. Legal or not, they have a range of damaging consequences that can affect the workplace. Some common substances that are abused include:


  • Alcohol: side effects can include slurred speech, impaired memory and blurred vision, all dangerous in a workplace setting.
  • Cocaine: a powerful stimulant that induces euphoria, increased sensation and an elevated heart rate.
  • MDMA: known as ecstasy it’s usually associated with the electronic dance music scene but in the workplace it can damage judgment, thinking and mood.
  • Heroin: this is a narcotic and can lead to heart problems and even sudden death.
  • Prescription stimulants: these are legal but a dependence on them can lead to heart trouble and seizures.

Dealing with substance abuse

Employers should consider developing policies that address substance abuse in their workplaces, making it clear that it is unacceptable behavior and ensuring that substance abuse policies form part of employees’ contracts. All substance abuse policies should include a clause about drug testing. Some large employers do this before taking on workers, especially in sensitive areas such as the military or other public services.

Employers can benefit from companies that supply specialized support if there are substance abuse problems in the workplace; these firms are able to provide ecstasy testing kits as well as kits for checking for other substances that would prove dangerous to employees.