Friday, May 9, 2008

Health Care and Employee Substance Abuse

AISHealth has reported this month that 9% of U.S. workers drink alcohol in ways that contribute to absenteeism and higher health care costs, according to a new study from The George Washington University Medical Center. Substance abuse has become a chronic problem in the workplace. As noted last summer by the Hazelden Foundation and reported by Medical News Today online in July, 2007, a national survey of human resources professionals shows that while substance abuse and addiction are recognized as among the most serious problems faced in the workplace, employer policies and practices are not fully addressing the problem. The survey also found that although most companies offer employee assistance programs, many do not openly and proactively deal with employee substance abuse issues, do not refer employees to treatment programs and face barriers that prevent them from helping employees seek and receive addiction treatment.

The Foundation concluded that treating drug and alcohol addiction results in more people finding their path to recovery, it results in more resilient families, more productive work places and healthier and safer communities. Yet, according to the survey, more than 67% of HR professionals today believe that substance abuse and addiction is one of the most serious issues they face in their company. Absenteeism, reduced productivity and a lack of trust are major problems stemming from substance abuse that affect the efficiency and success of companies across the country. Despite the serious nature of the issue and the wide adoption of policies and programs, many HR professionals are not referring employees to treatment programs. About 22% of HR professionals say their companies openly and proactively deal with employee substance abuse and addiction issues. Also, 85% of HR professionals believe that offering education programs to build understanding of addressing addiction in the workplace would be an effective component of a solution to this problem.

The results concluded that employee substance abuse and addiction can have a negative effect on business, and the most significant problems companies experience due to employee substance abuse and addiction were absenteeism (62%); reduced productivity (49%); lack of trustworthiness (39%); negative impact on the company's external reputation (32%); missed deadlines (31%); increased health care costs (29%); and unpredictable, defensive interpersonal relations (29%). Also, addiction issues may make new hires less attractive but do not deter commitment to current employees; and there is a growing issue for women with regard to substance abuse and addiction, according to the survey. One problem, though, is that the HR professionals surveyed believe that getting employees to acknowledge or talk about the issue is their toughest challenge.

The site for the Safety Daily Advisor reports that workplace drug and alcohol abuse, which, despite the government’s decades-long war on drugs, drains business of more than $100 billion a year. These costs come from lost productivity, vastly higher rates of absence than those of nonabusers, and workers’ comp claims many times as high. The human cost, to co-workers, families, and the abusers themselves, is, of course, immeasurably higher. They also recommend that an employer policy should state the following:

--A prohibition of illegal drugs and drug or abuse-related items and actions, spelling out the meaning of such definitions as “controlled substances”, “drug paraphernalia”, and conditions such as “under the influence.” (Note that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you may not simply ban all drugs in the workplace.) They also recommend a an employer have a policy on alcohol, which is a legal substance. Your company can, however, prohibit its consumption, or even its presence on premises, which includes use of company vehicles. Your company's policy should also spell out permitted uses, such as at social functions.
--Limitations on legal, prescribed drugs, such as permitting only one day’s supply at a time, in original containers, taken per a doctor’s instructions. You also may reserve the right to consult with your own doctors as to whether prescribed medications could create hazards in a given employee’s specific job circumstances.
--Enforcement Actions. This section of your policy must spell out your rights and procedures in ridding your workplace of illegal drugs and in controlling alcohol usage.

These work place policies should also include detailing an employer's right to reasonably search employee lockers and other personal spaces, and to conduct medically-efficacious testing, both pre-employment and during tenure of employment, when such tests are advisable. This usually includes after an incident, or when an employee shows signs of impairment, but testing can also be random, as long as all employees are treated with equal fairness.

Penalties: This section should detail your right to remove from the premises and discipline proven abusers, right up to termination. It should also provide penalties for those refusing to be tested or to cooperate in investigations stemming from drug or alcohol abuse. Employee rights to counseling or use of an EAP should also be spelled out here. And, as in many policies, the concept of employment-at-will should be restated. Be aware, however, that if your organization is unionized, the policy you write will be considered fair game for negotiation in the collective bargaining process. The Safety Daily Advisor has additional resources for this employee issue.

Substance abuse in the work environment needs to be addressed swiftly and with the best decorum. Employees who have the tendency to drink or take illegal drugs on the job are also likely to not be the most dependable. They also are going to make working conditions difficult for their co-workers. If your customers notice a problem, then you have lost business which affects the bottom line of staying in business. Many companies have a zero tolerance policy--one strike and you're out. Some businesses are a little more lenient, but they have a real need to maintain policies in place to deal with employee substance abuse. A worker, manager, or executive who is drunk or high on the job is a huge problem, and the results can be catastrophic if not properly addressed. Whatever your HR employee manual states about this particular situation, it needs to be strictly enforced.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

No comments: