HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

The Cost of Workplace Addiction

Alcohol and drug use on the job takes place far more often than you may think. A decade ago, a national study found that 63% of workers said they could acquire alcohol at work, bring alcohol into work, use alcohol on their breaks or during lunch, and even consume alcohol while working. Just over 59% of workers said they could do the same with illicit drugs.

Now in 2022, the remote workforce has grown significantly, and it is easier than ever for an employee to use substances during the workday. This can take a toll on not only the employee but also the entire team.

The Implications of Workplace Substance Use

Alcohol and drug use in the workplace can have serious implications for employers and employees with respect to productivity, costs, and health care.

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates the average employee misses 15 days of work per year (the equivalent of 3 weeks) due to injury, illness, or other reasons outside of vacation time. This time frame nearly doubles for employees who live with addiction, averaging nearly 25 missed workdays (or 5 weeks) per year that might additionally adversely impact company productivity.

In the case that an employee cannot continue to work, the cost of job turnover can be significant. According to the NSC, by some estimates, the process of recruiting and training replacement employees roughly equates to one-third of an employee’s annual salary and can be as much as 50% of an employee’s salary when additional expenses are factored into the equation. (These costs vary depending on education level, skill set, and more.)

Recognizing Substance Use on the Job

Addictions, or substance use disorders, are complex and chronic conditions that can manifest themselves in many ways. It’s never the job of an employee or a manager to attempt to diagnose a colleague, but there may be telltale signs that accompany problematic drug and alcohol use that could indicate the issue needs to be addressed, including:

  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Moodiness or changes in personality
  • Confusion and/or memory loss
  • Sleeping while at work or disappearing for long periods from the worksite
  • Excessive and/or unexplained absences
  • Decreased productivity/inability to meet deadlines

Though this list is not comprehensive, nor are these signs necessarily specific to substance misuse, they could point to an issue that needs to be evaluated and eventually addressed.

What to Do About Addiction in the Workplace

As an HR leader in your organization, you may be in a place to steer a struggling colleague toward help.

If you think an employee is misusing drugs or alcohol, there are different steps you can take to help the person. Ideally, your organization will have a clearly written substance use policy you can turn to for help, which includes a clear definition of substance misuse, actions that violate company policy, and the consequences of those actions. How you handle the situation may differ based on whether you’re the person’s peer or the person’s boss.

Understand that employees are afforded some protections by the law. For example, employers may not discriminate against an employee who is in recovery from addiction or enrolled in a treatment program. However, the law does not prohibit a drug-free workplace policy or disciplinary action for violating such a policy.

If you’re a leader in your organization, you can help prevent serious substance-related issues by taking proactive measures to educate your workforce on alcohol and drug misuse, as well as on ways to get help. Employees may be unaware of resources available to them through work. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), for example, may be underrecognized and underutilized. Make sure staff know about the services offered and how to access them.

Addiction is a widespread issue on a state and national level—one that has only worsened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. HR leaders have the unique position to intervene if they see an employee struggling. By taking action, they might not only effect positive changes in a person’s life but also otherwise positively impact the workplace as a whole.

Richard Sierra is the HR Director at Recovery First Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility.