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Substance Abuse in the Workplace

It’s no secret that drug abuse is unwelcome in the workplace. And with having the potential to cause problems for businesses ranging from financial costs to lost productivity, it’s pretty clear why.

Yet, with the opioid epidemic in full swing, the rates of substance abuse in workers have continued to rise, costing businesses more and more. 

Your business can’t afford to ignore substance abuse. Workers who have drug abuse disorders take 50% more absent days from work, missing an average of nearly 29 days per year. That’s nearly six weeks of lost productivity! 

Substance Abuse Policies

The best way to control drug abuse in the workplace is with clear policies. For substance abuse policies to work, they need to:

  • Be clear about the consequences of drug use: An anti-drug policy isn’t going to work if your employees won’t face consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure your team knows that this is a drug-free workplace and that testing positive can lead to suspension or termination. If this is a change to existing policy, then you should send out a memo letting your team know about the change. 
  • Be enforceable: How are you going to check whether your team is following the drug policy? Most likely, you’ll need to enforce the policy with drug tests. There are different types of tests available for different drugs, but most employers choose to test for the most common ones, such as amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, and marijuana (in states where it’s not legal). 
  • Be part of the work culture. A clean workplace starts with the environment and mindset. When clean living is part of the culture at work, it’s easier for employees to subscribe to that lifestyle. Offer your team resources for healthy living, including addiction resources for those who need it. 

Ready to start and lead a drug-free workplace? Here’s what you need to know about substance abuse in the workplace: 

The Impact of Drug Abuse in the Workplace

There are countless ways that drug abuse affects the workplace every year. Nearly all of them result in lost money for the business. Drug abuse causes all kinds of problems for managers and business owners, ranging from increased health insurance costs to wasted time on the clock. 

Some examples include: 

  • Lost productivity: Drugs in the workplace cause a 17-18% productivity drop. That’s because drug abuse on the job leads to physical and mental problems that make it harder for workers to do their jobs well.
  • Chronic lateness: Team members who abuse drugs might show up to work late on a regular basis because they’re looking for drugs, using them, or recovering from using them. 
  • Missed work: Every day that your team member isn’t in the office is another day that their projects are delayed, costing your company valuable time and money. 
  • Problems with communication: People who use drugs at work might communicate less effectively while they’re under the influence. This is another factor that can put work projects behind and waste resources. 
  • High turnover: An employee with a substance abuse disorder is much more likely to move on to another job (or be fired) within a year. That means increased costs for re-hiring and training a new staff member to replace them. 
  • High healthcare costs: The average business covers around 82% of an employee’s individual healthcare costs. Employees who have substance abuse disorders are more likely to be admitted to the hospital or emergency room. 

One thing’s clear: the effects of drug abuse in the workplace are widespread, and it’s not worth putting your business at risk. The costs are too high to go without a drug-free workplace policy. 

The Dangers of Drug Abuse in the Workplace

Not only do drugs cost businesses money, they’re also a risk to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) compliance and to employees themselves. In fact, a stunning 65% of workplace accidents are caused by drug and alcohol abuse

OSHA is an organization that makes sure American businesses are operating in a way that’s safe for employees. All businesses need to follow OSHA safety rules. If they don’t, they face steep government fines and even possible business closure and legal trouble. 

These safety rules are in place to make sure employees are safe at work. When workers show up on drugs or use drugs at work, their judgment can be impaired. That can lead to dangerous decisions and rule-breaking that leads to expensive OSHA violations and personal injury, both for the employee using drugs and for others on the team. 

Workplaces experience more OSHA violations when drugs are used on the job (and a financial penalty comes with each violation). But more importantly, your team is more likely to get hurt when there are drugs in the workplace. That’s reason enough to enforce a drug-free workplace and protect the team members who make your business succeed. 

Causes of Drug Abuse in the Workplace

What makes people use drugs at work? When you understand more about why people use drugs, you can do more to prevent drug use at work. 

Most people who abuse drugs at work do it because they have:

  1. A stressful work environment. People use drugs to escape from real-life stress, and that includes work stress. If work is a stressful place to be, then some people will try to deal with that stress by using drugs, potentially on the clock. You can remove that reason by taking steps to lessen workplace stress. That might mean checking in with employees more often about their stress levels and workloads so that you can make changes. 
  1. Risk factors for drug abuse. Some people are more likely to abuse drugs because of risk factors, including: family history, personal or financial stress, mental illness, or a history of trauma. You can’t change your team members’ risk factors, but you can give them the tools needed to overcome them. Consider implementing a mental health relief program at work to help employees who need support.
  1. Addiction or substance abuse disorders. Substance use disorders can cause painful withdrawal symptoms after just a few hours without the drug of choice. Spending an eight-hour work shift without using drugs can seem impossible to someone living with an addiction and in active withdrawal. 

The most important tool in your arsenal against workplace drug use is simply knowing why people use drugs at work. When you know that stress contributes to drug use, you can take steps to provide a stress-free workplace. And when you realize that poor mental health is a risk factor, you can offer work-sponsored counseling or premium insurance that covers therapy. 

Recognizing Signs of Drug Abuse in the Workplace

It’s important to be able to recognize drug abuse when you see it so you can take appropriate measures. Depending on your company policy, “appropriate measures” could mean suspension or termination, or it could mean a warning with support measures offered (such as therapy or support groups.) 

An employee with a drug problem might show signs such as: 

  • Arriving at work late on a regular basis
  • Changes in work performance 
  • Missing work often 
  • Problems with hygiene and presentation 
  • Physical signs of drug abuse, such as needle marks 
  • Trouble communicating and maintaining professional relationships 

Sometimes, it may even be obvious if an employee comes to work intoxicated or uses drugs while at work. You could find drug paraphernalia or items used to smoke or snort drugs, either on the person or in areas they frequent, such as communal bathrooms. If you live and work in an area with a drug epidemic, then make sure you learn the signs of abuse for that specific drug, such as heroin or cocaine. 

How to Prevent Substance Abuse in the Workplace

It’s easier to prevent addiction at work than to deal with a problem once you already have it. Rather than dealing with substance abuse problems in your work culture years down the line, take the time now to create a workplace that’s safe and sober. 

Some steps you can take include: 

Low-Stress Work Culture

It’s well-established that there’s a link between substance abuse and stress. Therefore, less stress at work should tempt fewer workers to abuse drugs on the job. Talk to your team about what stresses them out and take action to solve those problems. 

Drug-Free Workplace Policies

When there’s a clear expectation about drug use at work, your team will be less inclined to break the rules. A drug-free workplace policy can help build a sober work culture, so your team doesn’t feel like it’s acceptable to use substances on the job or allow drug abuse to affect their work (and life). 

Drug Testing 

Drug testing is a valuable tool for enforcing drug abuse policies at work, but it’s not available in every area. Make sure you check the rules for your locality before you require your employees to take drug tests. Broad spectrum drug tests are available that test for most common substances, including amphetamines, opioids, and marijuana. 

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Programs

At Northeast Addictions Treatment Center, we offer programs that partner with employers to provide low-cost or fully covered addiction therapy or education programs. These programs can be a great way to offer help to employees who think that they might need it. Being a responsible employer means doing your part to address the drug crisis in your workplace, so don’t hesitate to set up a program today!


  1. National Safety Council: What is the cost of substance abuse disorder? <
  2. Occupational Health and Safety: Drug testing and safety <
  3. National Safety Council: Implications of drug and alcohol use for employers < 
  4. Psychology Today: Identifying alcohol or drug abuse in the workplace <
  5. Verywell Mind: The dangers of substance abuse in the workplace <
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