Statistics suggest that more than 60,000 people drink on the job each month in Alberta. Six thousand workers also use illegal drugs.
Yet some companies continue to tiptoe around the issue.
Supervisors may turn a blind eye, and co-workers will cover up for fellow employees, says Jim Arnett, a supervisor with the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission’s counselling and prevention division.
In those cases, the bottom line is that everyone suffers. Company productivity and profits are affected, and depending on the industry, people’s lives can be put in danger.
“A co-worker may cover up for a buddy, or say: ‘It’s not any of my business,’ but if you are working in seismic and that buddy works with dynamite, well, isn’t that your business?” asks Arnett.
According to AADAC, the financial cost of substance abuse to business is reported at more than $400 million annually. Costs are wide ranging – from increased company sick benefits and WCB claims, to reshuffled workloads, poor morale, customer complaints, increased accidents and theft from the workplace to support habits.
It’s the reason AADAC offers a four-segment awareness program to help supervisors and human resource officials understand the issues of substance abuse, and hopefully spread the word to all company employees.
Topics for the sessions offered this month include: substance abuse policies; dealing with troubled employees; employee assistance programs; and exploring whether companies should carry out drug testing.
There are two critical components to dealing positively with the problem, says Arnett. Supervisors must be trained, and companies must offer an employee-assistance program.
Supervisors, often the busiest people in an organization, are key to success. “They have a big job,” says Arnett. “They tell us they work a lot of hours, have a lot of people and can’t possibly know all this information. They have to understand sexual harassment issues, human rights stuff . . .
“Supervisors may say: ‘Hey I drink, too, so how do I talk to my employee?”
That’s the point where AADAC clarifies that the issue is strictly about performance – and it’s the supervisor’s role to detect substandard performance and correct it.
“They are not expected to be experts in all fields of human endeavor,” says Arnett.
In tandem, the company must have a clear substance-abuse policy. Will an employee be fired? Or is help available?
Many large organizations have elaborate programs and on-site help, but even small companies should be able to point an employee in the right direction if he or she requires help.
Sometimes, an employee just needs to be educated and told their drinking or drug use won’t be tolerated. Other times, treatment or rehabilitation programs are necessary.
More companies are now treating substance abuse and dependencies as a health issue. With cancer, for example, there is no question of treatment and time off work, if required. The same case is now being made for substance abuse.
“Companies are realizing that rehabilitation is very possible and it’s not only humanitarian, but also good business. They often come back as good or better employees, and the company doesn’t have to worry about recruiting and retraining someone new.”
Arnett suggests that co-workers are almost as important as supervisors in maintaining a clean environment. Too often workers ‘enable’ their friends by covering up, not realizing they’re just encouraging the behaviour.
If supervisors or friends allow this, the problem worsens. And if the company doesn’t care, why should good people want to work there?
Alcohol remains the most abused drug, but AADAC sees problems with LSD, ecstasy, crack cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
Problem gambling is also an issue. Officially, not more than five per cent of the provincial population has a gambling problem, but those who do can have substantial financial issues that may spill into the workplace in the form of theft to cover debts.
AADAC also discusses drug testing in the workplace, though it doesn’t advocate testing.
Some industries, transportation for example, require testing if they are doing business in the U.S.
AADAC also discusses false positives, how tests are conducted, the importance of getting a reputable lab that doesn’t mix up samples and that will go to court if required.
And if a company still wants to proceed with workplace testing, AADAC strongly urges that it consider testing for alcohol – not just illegal drugs.
“Alcohol is far and away the drug of greatest problem in terms of things like accidents,” says Arnett.
He also believes an educated management team is the most efficient way to deal with substance abuse issues.
“A well-educated supervisor looking for warning signs of impairment would be a better tool on the job than random drug testing,” says Arnett.