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The Cost of Substance Abuse in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

There are no shortages of misconceptions related to substance use. One specific notion is that it is largely limited to those in communities struggling with poverty and particularly individuals battling homelessness. And while such groups certainly face challenges, the negative effects of drug and alcohol addiction aren’t exclusive to any one faction. Take for example one incident in 2014, when a pilot for JetBlue was caught possessing heroin. This is just one of many job types where the issue is prevalent but not sufficiently addressed, especially with the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Workplace Problems With Drug Addiction Are Very Real

In 2014, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, otherwise known as NCADD, projected that drug abuse costs U.S. employers $81 billion per year. In fact, at the time, the council estimated 70% of those using illegal drugs were currently employed. In simplest terms, when employees battle drug abuse while employed, businesses can often deal with a variety of consequences, such as tardiness, on-site injuries and low workplace morale.

Drug Screening at U.S. Workplaces

Drug prevention in the workplace largely revolves around testing. According to polling from the Society for Human Resource Management in 2011, 57% of employers responded that they did screen candidates before making job offers. However, that number is thought to have decreased in recent years, and of course, many do not impose further testing requirements beyond the initial hiring period (once candidates have become employees).

Drug Prevention Initiatives

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends a number of general guidelines for businesses:

  • Assess the Workplace – Each business has individual needs and customized initiatives can be critical. Therefore, drug-free policies should be developed based on assessments. SAMSHA recommends articulating drug-free goals, designing strategies and determining assessment methods in which to gather data and interpret results (more information here at samhsa.gov).
  • Consider an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) – These are programs that help individual employees and their family members with substance use and mental health issues. They sometimes include activities related to health and wellness as well. Assessments are confidential and help employees feel comfortable meeting their individual needs, whether it’s related to substance use or other personal problems. EAP programs can be internal, external (outside organizations) or combine internal and external resources.
  • Consider Prevention Interventions – Drug-free workplaces can be further complemented by evidence-based prevention interventions. These can include the promotion of healthy habits on the job site, encouraging coping mechanisms for stress, and other strategies. See specific intervention ideas at nrepp.samhsa.gov.

At the end of the day, the most important step businesses can take is getting people the help they need in their moments of adversity. While employee termination may at times be necessary depending on the job type (should a failed test occur), connecting employees to helpful resources is of the most importance. Therefore, an emphasis on understanding and compassion is a very good route to take.


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Northbound Addiction Treatment provides integrated solutions for addiction and mental health disorders. The company features locations in Newport Beach, California; Seattle, Washington; and St. Louis, Missouri.

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