Drug use in the workforce — and what employers can do about it

November 3, 2022

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By Scotty Benton, VP, workers’ compensation practice; Reema Hammoud, AVP, clinical pharmacy; Laura Oslund, senior risk services consultant; and Rich Wirth, SVP, risk services

The statistics regarding drug use among the American workforce are alarming. An estimated one in 12 U.S. workers has a substance use disorder (SUD), and more than half of all adults diagnosed with an SUD are employed full-time.

Many more members of the workforce could be considered “casual” drug users. The isolation and financial and health stressors brought on by COVID-19 have likely exacerbated these numbers, as people turned to drugs as a coping mechanism during the challenging times of the pandemic.

Drug use affects a variety of health and safety factors in the workplace, and employers are encouraged to consider a multipronged approach in addressing this complicated issue.

Workplace safety

Drugs can adversely affect a person’s judgment, reaction time, attentiveness, dexterity, cognitive function, productivity and more. It’s not hard to imagine how an employee under the influence who experiences such impairments would be prone to making errors.

For someone in a desk job, that could mean forgetting to send a time-sensitive email, transposing numbers on a balance sheet, or falling prey to a phishing campaign. For someone in a “safety-sensitive” position that involves driving, operating machinery, lifting heavy objects, or providing direct care to others, a mistake could cause a dangerous accident that results in serious injury or even loss of life. According to one study, 47% of workplace injuries and 40% workplace fatalities involve drugs or alcohol. Another found that employees using drugs are five times more likely than their counterparts to file a workers’ compensation claim.

Further compounding the risks is the fact that workers may not be able to accurately assess their level of drug-related impairment at work. With cannabis, for example, crossbreeding has made marijuana much stronger than it was decades ago. Cannabis products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so users may not know the potency of what they’re taking or how it will affect them.

Another variable is the growing popularity of products containing CBD (cannabidiol), an active ingredient in cannabis but not a psychoactive one causing a “high.” These come in a variety of formulations — including gummies, topicals, flowers and more — that metabolize at different rates and can affect users in different ways. Also on the rise is the practice of psychedelic microdosing, in which users consume low levels of substances like LSD to boost their mood or creativity but not enough to experience their hallucinogenic effects; the benefits and safety of microdosing remain hot topics of discussion and research.

A matter of policy

To address these risks, some highly regulated industries, areas of the public sector and other employers require drug-free workplaces and enforce regular drug testing among employees. While there are demonstrated health and safety benefits associated with zero-tolerance drug policies, there may be other risks involved.

In today’s highly competitive talent market, some employers are shying away from — and even backtracking on — zero-tolerance policies for fear of losing current employees and alienating prospective ones. Additionally, most testing initiatives identify the presence of a drug in a person’s system, without accounting for their level of functionality, whether the drug was prescribed to them by a medical professional or if they’re taking it for a legitimate health reason. Another consideration is whether on-site drug testing creates a double standard, giving those who work remotely more leeway than those based in the workplace.

Whether a zero-tolerance stance on drug use or one that’s less restrictive is determined to be appropriate for your organization, you should have it documented in an employee policy that is unambiguous, clearly communicated and readily available to everyone bound by it. You may want to consider reviewing the policy with employment counsel to ensure organizational compliance with all applicable requirements. It’s also beneficial to have some non-experts go over the policy and offer feedback to ensure all employees can understand the expectations. Regular policy reviews are a good idea, too, to account for recent regulatory changes and language currency and appropriateness.

Education is key

All organizations can benefit from training their employees — both people managers and individual contributors — on how to recognize the signs of drug-related impairment in themselves and others and where to turn if they have concerns about workplace safety. Research by the National Safety Council found that training people managers on impairment recognition and response helps to improve workers’ safety behaviors and control workers’ compensation costs. Keep in mind that all organizational protocols for reporting colleagues who appear impaired at work should be discreet, focused on safety, and driven by a sense of responsibility and empathy.

Employers play a critical role in reducing the stigma around seeking help for a substance use disorder. In addition to the workplace safety element, employee education efforts should include information on available substance abuse and recovery support, whether through the employee health benefits, employee assistance program (EAP) or community-based resources.

Normalizing and promoting treatment for substance abuse is a win-win: it lowers employees’ long-term health care costs, reduces unscheduled absences from work, boosts workplace safety and productivity, curtails turnover, and, most importantly, demonstrates that caring counts.

Learn more — read about Sedgwick’s risk services offerings, or contact Rich Wirth to explore how our experts can help your organization with drug-use policy development, employee training and other workplace safety initiatives

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