HR Leadership Column Cry for Help

From big cities to small towns, employers can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines when it comes to addressing today's workplace substance-abuse problem. But HR executives must exercise care as they walk through a substance-abuse legal landscape that includes issues of medical privacy, disability law, and balanced and effective performance management.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017
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When my husband and I relocated from the Washington metropolitan area to Cape Cod, we started a subscription to the local newspaper: the Cape Cod Times. The paper has some national and state news, but it largely reports on the news of Cape Cod: town meetings, elections, upcoming or recent events and sports.

After so many years of reading the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, it was actually interesting to read a paper that included the equivalent of the local police blotter. Each edition includes reports on who was charged or arrested for what felony or misdemeanor, where it occurred, and what prior arrests the person has, assuming that information was available. The focus of the Washington Post has always been on national and international news; only major crimes in the metropolitan area were covered. Of course, the Wall Street Journal focused on major financial crimes.  

But while I was initially charmed by the local police reports, I've quickly become deeply concerned by the number of arrests for drunk driving and the illegal sale and/or use of drugs. It's a steady drumbeat of news about all kinds of substance abuse, including those involving opioid abuse, and the beat just seems to get louder and louder. I know it's not because the Washington area didn't have the same problems with substance abuse; it's just that there would be so many more instances that it was impossible to cover it every day.

I'm not a dumb woman; I know that substance abuse is prevalent in all walks of life -- geographically, professionally and economically. No demographic is unscathed. I also know, as every HR professional knows, that what happens in society at large is always reflected in the workplace. (Read more about HR's response to the opioid-addiction crisis in the workplace here.) Still, the latest numbers truly surprised me.

To wit, the Surgeon General, in a study published at the end of last year, reported that more than 27 million people in the U.S. reported current use of illicit drugs or misuse of prescription drugs in 2015, and over 66 million people (nearly a quarter of the adult and adolescent population) reported binge drinking in the past month.

Yes, 66 million binge drinkers! While these numbers are for the population at large, the impact on the workplace is clear. Quest Diagnostics recently released an analysis of its workplace drug-testing results and found that, following years of declines, the percentage of employees in the U.S. workforce testing positive for drugs hit a 12-year high, with the trend even higher for post-accident testing.

The Surgeon General's report estimated that the yearly economic impact of substance misuse and substance-use disorders is $249 billion for alcohol and $193 billion for illegal drug use.

So how much might this be costing your business? Recently, the National Safety Council, Shatterproof and NORC at the University of Chicago collaborated to design "The Real Cost of Substance Use to Employers" tool. Users can enter their industry, location and number of employees, and receive specific information about the likely cost of substance abuse (including prescription-drug abuse and misuse, alcohol abuse and misuse, opioid and heroin addiction, as well as abuse of other illicit drugs and marijuana) in their workplaces.

For example, a company based in Washington with 350 employees in a service industry could expect to incur about $200,000 in annual substance-abuse-related expenses, including lost-time, turnover, job training and healthcare. Other expenses are incurred by lower productivity, greater likelihood of accidents and greater use of workers' compensation.

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While drug testing is certainly one way to reduce employee substance abuse, particularly for employers with contractual or industry requirements for testing, it won't eliminate the risk. Offering employee assistance programs -- and thereby providing a safe place for employees to get help -- as well as providing health-insurance coverage for treatment, may involve upfront costs, but could actually save money for the employer over time.

HR professionals should also consider providing information or training for managers and supervisors to help them recognize the signs of abuse, so that they can properly document the performance-related problems, and potentially refer the employee for help.

Signs of addiction can include prolonged absences from work, frequent lateness or missed appointment times or production deadlines. Other indications include swings in productivity levels, poor hygiene and/or personal appearance, personality changes and wearing sunglasses or long-sleeve shirts at inappropriate times. Such signals may really be an employee crying out for help.

I recognize that HR executives must exercise care as they walk through a substance-abuse legal landscape that includes issues of medical privacy, disability law, and balanced and effective performance management. But if it might result in an employee getting the help he or she needs, I think it's a walk worth taking.

And in the process, you may reduce your employer's costs.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.



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