Substance misuse in the workplace

Joshua Kayman, MD is the Medical Director of MPI Chemical Dependency Treatment Services at Summit Alta Bates Medical Center and Supervising Psychiatrist at the John Muir Behavioral Health Center. Dr. Kayman’s work involves brief interventions for behavior change and the integration of behavioral health and primary care. We are thrilled to have him guest blog for Castlight Health regarding substance misuse and behavioral and mental health challenges!

The misuse and overuse of alcohol and other chemical substances can pose a challenge for employers. Addiction in employees can cause lost productivity, poor performance, higher healthcare costs, more frequent workers compensation claims and increased sick days. Not to mention, workplace drug and alcohol misuse may potentially cost U.S. businesses an estimated $100 billion – per year! The brunt of that cost is on small businesses, particularly because they are less likely to drug test employees than larger businesses.

An employee who is struggling at work may have one of many health-related reasons for their difficulties. Addiction is one possibility, but an employee can perform well in a job for years despite an ongoing addiction. In fact, the majority of Americans with a substance use disorder are employed full time. Even experienced healthcare professionals are unable to identify who might be intoxicated or misusing substances. Therefore, an employer who is concerned about substance misuse in the workplace is better off using a systematic approach than trying to pick out an employee based on various characteristics such as the smell of alcohol on their breath or frequent Monday sick days. Struggling to come up with ideas on how to best address these kinds of issues?

Here are three suggested steps to help employees:

  1. Incorporate a substance misuse policy. Make sure that this follows the employment law in the area and provides a framework to address problematic addiction. Reviewing this policy during orientation also helps to set the tone if problems arise.

  1. Express concern. A supervisor who has suspicions that an employee is misusing substances should start by having a conversation with said employee. Studies show that the majority of people who have a substance use disorder can moderate their use or achieve abstinence when they are motivated to do so.

  1. Provide referrals. An employee whose addiction is more severe may need a recommendation for an appropriate health care provider or addiction treatment program if they are unable to stop on their own.

Remember: Substance misuse and behavioral challenges in the workplace are not uncommon, and it’s imperative that employers provide preventative strategies, offer outreach resources and impart empathy to their employees. Doing so is an important step towards helping to improve the health, happiness, and productivity of your workforce.