Substance abuse among employees poses a great risk to employers, and fellow employees in the workplace. However, simply dismissing an employee, who is under the influence, might not be the most sustainable approach

While it is difficult to estimate its true extent and impact, the prevalence of substance abuse is alarming. The South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) has estimated that the annual cost of alcohol abuse for the country is up to ten percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

These costs include absenteeism, lost productivity, health and welfare costs as well as alcohol-related crime. According to a 2009 study by SAMJ based on 2004 data, one in five adults abuse drugs and alcohol. More recent data shows that 33 percent of the South African population older than 15 years admitted to consuming alcohol.

Of those, 43 percent reported binge drinking, according to a study by SAMJ published in January titled: Self-reported alcohol use and binge drinking in South Africa: Evidence from the National Income Dynamics Study, 2014-2015.

SAMJ estimates that around 50 percent of people are able to drink socially without any negative consequences – mostly because they consume small quantities on an infrequent basis.

The other half of the population faces serious, harmful bio-psycho-social effects including addiction. If this estimation is correct, the rate of abuse should be much more alarming. Rhys Evans, MD at Alco-Safe, correctly states: “Recent statistics are hard to come by, especially around the extent of the problem. This is probably due to the fact that alcoholism is a stigmatised problem.”

However, substance abuse definitely has an impact on the workplace. It inhibits the employee’s reaction time, rational thinking and ability to perform. More importantly, it places other employees at risk.

Ilse Britz, product manager at Homemed, notes: “It is important to test for substances to manage risk and to obtain an objective view on the compliance of employees towards company policy.”

Britz advises companies to draw up clearly defined policies and procedures around substance use and abuse in the workplace as well as procedures to deal with it. These should be legally, scientifically and ethically sound.

“Include all necessary stakeholders in the process. Use awareness campaigns to inform the workforce of the new policy before implementing testing procedures so that everyone knows what to expect. This will help increase compliance,” she adds.

When an employee is found to be under the influence, the company’s first responsibility is to ensure the safety of the other employees. This can be done by removing the intoxicated employee from the work premises. Thereafter, the company can take action against the employee. There are a number of approaches.

“The action taken could vary from company to company and could range from a warning, or employee assistance programme (EAP) to retesting and dismissal. Of great importance is the disciplinary procedure, which should be implemented consistently among all employees,” Britz explains. While dismissal might seem like the best approach, providing an employee with support is much more sustainable.

“It will often be easier and more cost-effective for the organisation to assist a productive employee than upskilling a new worker. Employees who have a substance-abuse problem will also be more likely to come forward if help is provided, therefore reducing the employer’s risk,” Britz advises.

“However, the employees can’t request endless help without consequences. The extent of the assistance that will be offered should, therefore, be stipulated. There are service providers in the EAP environment that could offer assistance (for example counselling) to employees. Companies can also make use of rehabilitation centres.

“If company procedure stipulates that counselling is a requirement after an employee has tested positive, it would be viewed as misconduct (non-compliance to policy and procedure) if the employee does not attend counselling.

“However, if the employee is not addicted to drugs and has self-control, counselling might not be necessary and a written warning might be a sufficient deterrent to keep the employee from using again,” she adds, advising companies to do a random or follow-up test of the employee.

The recent legalisation of marijuana also poses a risk for companies, especially following the confusion as to when and where marijuana use is acceptable.

According to Britz, employees might be inclined to make marijuana their drug of choice. She notes that Homemed has already seen an increase in positive tests for marijuana. “Organisations need to be more vigilant and need to better define their substance-abuse policies by including cut-off level concentrations after which an employee is in breach of contract,” she concludes.

Companies can also go the extra mile to reduce the probability of substance abuse by addressing some of the causes, such as stress. “Work is considered one of the top causes of stress,” Evans says. “Whether it is deadlines, making targets, or simply being unhappy in a job, the work environment contributes heavily to the amount of stress a person feels.

“Furthermore, many people tend to treat stress by drinking heavily. This tends to compound the stress, as excessive alcohol consumption commonly results in inattention and can hamper productivity.” He suggests dealing with stress in more effective ways including taking frequent breaks away from the desk or workstation.

Employees should also be able to communicate their stress or challenges in the workplace. To ensure employees feel comfortable to air grievances and concerns, an anonymous platform can be provided.

“This does not mean that all grievances or stresses will result in action, however, a place to simply unburden does help employees to feel heard,” he says. Employees in high-stress environments should also receive frequent leave and be offered the required support, including counselling or therapy.

While these steps won’t guarantee a substance-free workplace, they will empower employees, while reducing the risk to the employer and assist in providing a safer environment for all.

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