Substance Abuse in the Workplace

A Dangerous and Expensive Problem

Working Man Drinking
Drinking After Work Can Cause Workplace Problems. © Getty Images

Alcohol and drug abuse by employees cause many expensive problems for business and industry ranging from lost productivity, injuries, and an increase the health insurance claims.

The loss to companies in the United States due to alcohol and drug-related abuse by employees totals $100 billion a year, according to the The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, while in Canada The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission has estimated the annual cost of workers absent or tardy due to substance abuse to be approximately $400 million just in Alberta alone.

These staggering numbers do not include the cost of diverting company resources, that could be used for other purposes, toward addressing substance abuse issues. Nor does it include the "pain and suffering" aspects, which cannot be measured in economic terms.

Drinking and drugging among U.S. workers create costly medical, social and other problems that affect both employees and employers. Substance abuse among employees can threaten public safety, impair job performance and threaten their own safety.

Problems Caused in the Workplace

In addition to deaths and accidents, absenteeism and loss of production, other problems that alcohol and drug abuse can cause on the job include:

  • Tardiness/sleeping on the job
  • Hangover or withdrawal affecting job performance
  • Poor decision making
  • Loss of efficiency
  • Theft
  • Lower morale of co-workers
  • Increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers/supervisors or tasks
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration
  • Illegal activities at work including selling illicit drugs to other employees
  • Higher turnover
  • Training of new employees
  • Disciplinary procedures

Measuring the Costs of Substance Abuse

However, costs to businesses can be measured in the expense of absenteeism, injuries, health insurance claims, loss of productivity, employee morale, theft and fatalities.

According to NCADI statistics alcohol and drug users:

  • Are far less productive.
  • Use three times as many sick days.
  • Are more likely to injure themselves or someone else.
  • Are five times more likely to file worker's compensation claims.

One survey found that nine percent of heavy drinkers and 10 percent of drug users had missed work because of a hangover, six percent had gone to work high or drunk in the past year, and 11 percent of heavy drinkers and 18 percent of drug users had skipped work in the past month.

Factors Contributing to Employee Substance Abuse

Research has shown that several factors can contribute to problem drinking and drugging in the workplace. Factors that can encourage or discourage workplace substance abuse include:

  • Workplace culture and acceptance of drinking/drugging
  • Workplace alienation
  • Availability of alcohol and drugs
  • Existence and enforcement of workplace substance abuse policies

Workplace Culture

The culture of the workplace can play a large roll into whether drinking and drug use is accepted and encouraged or discouraged and inhibited.

Part of this culture can depend on the gender mix of employees.

In predominantly female occupations research shows that both male and female employees are less likely to have substance abuse problems compared to employees of both genders in male-dominated occupations.

Studies have found that male-dominated occupations create heavy drinking cultures in which employees drink to build solidarity and show conformity. Therefore, these occupations have higher rates of alcohol- and drug-related problems.

Any industry or organization can be affected by workplace alcoholism, but research shows it is prevalent in these industries:

  • Food service Construction Mining and Drilling Excavation Installation, maintenance and repair

Workplace Alienation

Research shows that the job itself can contribute to higher rates of employee substance abuse. Work that is boring, stressful, or isolating can contribute to employees' drinking. Employee substance abuse has been linked with low job autonomy, lack of job complexity, lack of control over work conditions and products, boredom, sexual harassment, verbal and physical aggression, and disrespectful behavior.

Alcohol Availability

The availability and accessibility of alcohol can influence employee drinking. More than two-thirds of the 984 workers surveyed at a large manufacturing plant said it was "easy" or "very easy" to bring alcohol into the workplace, to drink at work stations, and to drink during breaks. In cultures where alcohol is prohibited, drinking on the job and drinking in general is decreased significantly.


The level of supervision on the job can affect drinking and drugging at work rates. At study of evening shift workers, when supervision was reduced, found that employees were more likely to drink at work than highly supervised shifts.

Casual Drinkers a Problem Too

Remarkably, new research shows it is the social drinkers - not the hard-core alcoholics or problem drinkers - who are responsible for most of lost productivity, according to a Christian Science Monitor article, specifically tying the hangover issue to production in the workplace

This study also found that it was managers, not hourly employees, who were most often drinking during the workday. Twenty-three percent of upper managers and 11 percent of first-line supervisors reported having a drink during the workday, compared with only eight percent of hourly employees.

Researchers also found that 21 percent of employees said their own productivity had been affected because of a co-worker's drinking.

Prevention Works

When the issue of workplace substance abuse is addressed by establishing comprehensive programs, it is a "win-win" situation for both employers and employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A study of the economic impact of substance abuse treatment in Ohio found significant improvements in job-related performance:

  • a 91 percent decrease in absenteeism
  • an 88 percent decrease in problems with supervisors
  • a 93 percent decrease in mistakes in work
  • a 97 percent decrease in on-the-job injuries.

In our next article, we will look at the steps that companies and employers -- large and small -- can take to adopt a workplace substance abuse policy that will reduce the loss of productivity and provide a safer work environment for all.


National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace." Addiction Update April 2015

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol and the Workplace." Alcohol Alerts July 1999

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