Former Drug Czar: Drugs in Workplace Understated Crisis

By Pamela Babcock November 13, 2013

NEW YORK—When former drug czar and retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey promoted drug-free-workplace programs, employers often said they supported giving job applicants drug tests because this practice slashed recruiting, training, health care utilization and turnover costs, since chronic alcoholics and drug addicts simply did not apply. 

When McCaffrey told management to stay out of the room and asked employees what they thought, he heard something else: 

“All I heard about was worker safety—‘I didn’t trust the guy I was working with because he was drug-impaired,’ ” McCaffrey said during a workshop at the 20th annual Health & Benefits Exposition, organized by the Teamster Center Services Fund. But when an organization became drug-free, he noted, workers resoundingly said, “I’m staying here because the work environment isn’t nasty.” 

The issue of drugs in the workplace is an understated crisis that results in $200 billion in lost productivity annually, in large part because an estimated 20 million Americans need treatment but don’t get it, said McCaffrey, who was the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1996 to 2001.

HR Should Play a Key Role

Substance abuse has big implications for employer productivity, workplace safety and stability, the economy, crime and turnover. 

“A drug-free workplace is an important goal, and it’s something you need to fight for in your EAP,” McCaffrey told attendees. But employees who are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are “a stigmatized population.” Emphasizing that help is available, McCaffrey said HR professionals should play a key role in promoting a drug-free workplace.

“HR is critical,” McCaffrey told SHRM Online after the event. “The HR person plays a vital role at every level of business, and part of that is [addressing] drugs in the workplace.”

Employees want to know management “has got my back and they care about me. And, by the way, if I’ve got a problem with drug and alcohol abuse, they’re going to step in and hold me accountable.”

Parity Requirements ‘Good News’ 

McCaffrey called it “good news” that parity requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act require insurers to cover substance-abuse treatment and mental-health care just as they do physical diseases.

According to the Teamster Center Services Fund, substance-abuse rehabilitation is the benefit that 19- to 25-year-olds use most frequently. 

McCaffrey said substance-abuse treatment will be reviewed much like treatments for a physical disease, meaning it “better sound and look like a medical hospital procedure, not mumbo jumbo.” Thus, techniques like acupuncture and massage therapy, which have been shown to keep people in treatment, may be closely scrutinized, he explained.

Special Concern for Veterans

McCaffrey said it’s important to note that most Americans don’t have drug or alcohol problems. He estimated that about 20 million people in the U.S.—out of a total population of 314 million—have chronic alcohol- and substance-abuse problems and about 70 percent of those people have jobs.

In contrast is the veteran population. As McCaffrey told SHRM Online, the issue is particularly acute for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injuries. He estimates that as many as 25 percent may have alcohol-abuse problems.

“A lot of these troops have been on 10 or more combat deployments,” which presents challenges as they transition to civilian life, he said. “We have to get them back down to normal behavior, [and] alcohol is the biggest problem facing the armed forces—bar none.”

Shifts in Drug Abuse

The types of drugs being abused has changed over the years, McCaffrey observed. Recently, chronic heroin use has risen “dramatically,” as has polydrug abuse, or the use of several drugs at once, including narcotics such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. 

“As the employer or as a union leader, I don’t care what the drug you’re using is—what I care about is your having chronic, periodic, legal, social, family, work and health-related issues caused by your abuse,” he said.

Steps to Take 

When it comes to drugs in the workplace, McCaffrey recommends that employers:

Do pre-employment drug screening, but don’t stop there—consider follow-up tests. Don’t trust interviews with co-workers. McCaffrey, who undergoes a background check annually, said a government “gumshoe” doing his screening once confessed that no one, particularly a loyal employee, “ever tells us the guy is an alcoholic—it never comes up.” 

Have a well-developed employee assistance program (EAP). If the 35-year-old chief of operations has an alcohol problem, be prepared to step in and say, “We’re taking you off the job for 30 days to put you into treatment, and when you come back, we’re going to monitor your behavior. We may drug-test you; we may do a variety of things.”

Don’t ignore the problem. It’s often not difficult to spot “the guy that is impaired,” particularly since he’s probably spiraling out of control, McCaffrey said. “There’s a predictable trajectory to this disease—eventually, it will probably kill you—and it ends up ruining your life.”

Don’t fire the person. It may seem the easiest thing to do, but “you’re losing a productive human being who actually has a disease model that we can deal with.” He added that the success rate of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse is greater than current medical intervention for cancer, particularly for people who begin by entering a science-based treatment program for at least 30 days and then follow up with a multiyear commitment to a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. 

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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