Few Organizations Deal Proactively with Substance Abuse

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 20, 2007
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A national survey of HR professionals finds that abuse of legal and illegal substances is a serious workplace problem that affects productivity, absenteeism, health care costs and other issues, but less than one-fourth of those professionals say that their organizations deal with substance abuse proactively.

One problem is that an overwhelming majority of HR professionals—85 percent—think drug testing is an effective way to diagnose the existence of substance abuse and addiction in the workplace.

However, 69 percent of substance abusers or addicts in 2005 abused alcohol, which can go undetected during drug testing, according to the Hazelden Foundation, citing research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Addiction.

The national, nonprofit Hazelden Foundation was created in 1949 to address addiction; it commissioned the survey of 1,356 senior HR professionals that was conducted from Sept. 25 to Oct. 12, 2006.

Alcoholism results in about 500 million lost workdays annually, and alcohol use can be linked to up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services.

HR professionals overwhelmingly (92 percent) think an effective treatment program increases employee productivity; 67 percent think access to an effective treatment program reduces an employer’s overall health care costs.

Most companies offer employee assistance programs, but many do not refer employees to treatment programs, and HR professionals said they aren’t referring employees to treatment programs on a regular basis.

There are some regional differences in how organizations react to substance abuse issues, the survey found.

  • More HR professionals in California (30 percent) and in Florida (34 percent) than nationwide (22 percent) say their companies deal with employee substance abuse issues openly and proactively.
  • More HR professionals in Minnesota (78 percent) and in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area (76 percent) than nationwide (67 percent) think that an effective substance abuse and addiction program can reduce overall health care costs for employers.
  • HR professionals in the Chicago metro area (77 percent) are more likely than those nationwide (66 percent) to agree that providing employees access to effective substance abuse treatment services can reduce overall health care costs for employers.
  • HR professionals in the New York metro region (52 percent) are less likely than those nationwide (76 percent) to have a drug testing program in place.
  • HR professionals in the New York metro region also are less likely than those nationwide to think drug testing is an effective way to diagnose workplace addictions (74 percent vs. 85 percent).

HR professionals say they lack the knowledge of how to handle the issue.

One barrier is the difficulty of getting employees to acknowledge or talk about the problem, according to more than half of HR professionals surveyed.

Also, HR is reluctant to step in because of a lack of experience identifying abuse and addiction (20 percent); a lack of information on treatment options (16 percent); feeling uncomfortable approaching employees who appear to have a substance problem (13 percent); and a lack of time (13 percent).

What they need, HR professionals said, is information on how to identify substance abuse and addiction in the workplace (32 percent), how to discuss the issue with employees (25 percent) and how to choose the most effective treatment options for those employees (19 percent).

Tread Carefully

The foundation offers tips on dealing with substance abuse and addiction at work. However, employers need to tread carefully, warns Gregg Lemley, a partner in the St. Louis law office of Bryan Cave LLP.

Address performance problems, not perceptions, he says.

While intervention may seem altruistic and good in theory, it could set up an employer for a lawsuit, Lemley said.

As soon as you start treating certain employees differently—as having an alcohol problem rather than a performance problem—“you run the risk of being accused of perceiving them as disabled under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act],” Lemley said.

If the employer has no evidence that the employee has a substance abuse problem—the employee did not fail a workplace drug test, for example—and the employer later fires that employee for performance issues, the employee might have a basis for an ADA lawsuit, he said.

However, he noted, “Any employee who self-identifies ought to be allowed unpaid leave to address that problem,” he said. Employees should be allowed to return to the employer upon showing proof of successful completion of the program, and should be told that they are subject to unannounced testing for at least one year, Lemley said.

The only obligation to provide leave to an employee who tests positive, though, Lemley added, is if it is provided for in the employer’s policy or is required under state law.

“If someone does or says something to give an indication of a substance abuse problem that is causing performance problems, you immediately refer that to HR,” who “in conjunction with legal counsel assesses the appropriate course of action.”

That course of action, he said, should be on a case-by-case basis.

He advised against making mandatory employee EAP referrals; optional EAP referrals should only be given if the employee has voluntarily indicated he or she has a problem, he added.

Employers may want to invite an EAP representative to talk to the entire staff periodically about what kind of assistance is available.

Also, unless it’s prohibited under state law, Lemley recommends that employers draft a policy that would include testing for alcohol intoxication.

One resource for employers that SAMHSA suggests is 1-800-Workplace (1-800-967-5752), a help line for employees and businesses dealing with problems related to substance abuse.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

Related Articles:

Employer Testing Credited for Drop in Worker Drug Use, HR News, April 18, 2007

Employers Turning Their Backs on Drug Testing, HR News, April 17, 2006

Related Resources:

Drug and Alcohol Policy, SHRM Knowledge Center

Drug Testing Policy, SHRM Knowledge Center

Drug Testing Toolkit, SHRM Knowledge Center

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews

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