Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Substance abuse in the workplace may, in many cases, be found to be a dismissible offence. Although this can be viewed to be an individual’s problem, it can also affect an employee’s performance at work resulting in absenteeism, accidents, illness and mortality – all of which could add to the employer’s costs.

Substance abuse has been linked to negative occurrences in the workplace such as stress, monotonous work, shift work, work requiring relocation and the frequent changes in co-workers and supervisors (ILO). The aim of this article is to examine how substance abuse affects the workplace and what measures employers and employee representatives could implement in order to eliminate the problem.

HOW SUBSTANCE ABUSE AFFECT THE WORKPLACE

The issue of substance abuse in the workplace has always been met with a dismissive attitude and swept under the carpet. However, when all incidents at work are accessed collectively it becomes important for the company to see it as a great concern. According to studies conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the abuse of alcohol and drugs in the workplace, the following was found: • Absenteeism of employees with alcohol and drug problems was three times higher than for other employees, • Employees with chemical dependence problems claimed sick benefits three times more than other employees and also made compensation claims five times more than other employees, • 20% to 25% of injuries in the workplace involved employees under the influence of alcohol, and • Drugs and alcohol supplied at work amounts to 15% to 30% of all accidents at work. It is not only heavy drinking that might result in incidents at work, but even low quantities of alcohol consumption have resulted in incidents. A study conducted in the 1990’s has shown that even though alcohol is consumed in small quantities the effects can be costly for the employer. The study was conducted amongst airline pilots performing routine tasks in a simulator under three alcohol conditions. The outcome was that, before the pilots could drink any alcohol, 10% of them could not perform all tasks correctly. After a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10/100ml, 89% could not perform all the operations correctly and after all the alcohol had left their system, 68% could not perform all the operations. Clearly this reveals that substance abuse should not be seen as only affecting heavy users as incidents can result from the consumption of low quantities of alcohol as well. Thus, it becomes important for employers to implement preventative measures and management programmes rather than just concentrating on the identification and rehabilitation of heavy users.

MEASURES TO ASSIST IN THE PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF “SUBSTANCE ABUSE”

The workplace can play an important role in preventing and providing remedies for substance abusers. The ILO has a code of conduct on the management of alcohol and drug related issues in the workplace. This can serve as a guideline for employers wishing to implement appropriate measures to prevent, reduce and control alcohol and drug related problems in the workplace.

DEVELOPMENT OF AN ALCOHOL AND DRUG POLICY FOR THE WORKPLACE

According to the code employers, together with employee representatives, should develop, in writing, a policy on alcohol and drug abuse. If possible, the policy should be formulated with the help of medical personnel and other experts who have specialised knowledge regarding alcohol and drug related problems. The policy should include information and procedures on:

Measures to control “substance abuse” in the workplace through good employment practices

The code advises that where it is shown that certain job situations may contribute to substance abuse the employer together with the employee representatives should identify and take appropriate preventative or remedial action. Workers and their representatives should also not formally or informally support behaviour, which incites, encourages or otherwise facilitates the harmful use of alcohol or the abuse of drugs on the premises. When an employee voluntarily discloses a previous history of substance abuse, the employer should take steps to ensure that the employee is not exposed to a working situation which might, in the past, have resulted in the employee’s problem.

Restriction on alcohol, legal and illegal drugs in the workplace

The employer together with consulting parties should consider restricting or prohibiting the possession, or consumption and the selling of alcohol in the workplace. The employer should, after consultation with employee representatives, consider withdrawing alcohol as an item for expense account reimbursement or restrict it to specific situations. Employers should also be prevented from paying any wages in the form of alcohol or drugs. The above should apply to both management and workers. In those instances were medication might result in significant impairment, the employee should consult a health professional and inform his/her senior in accordance to normal procedures for absence for health reasons.

Prevention through information, education and training programmes

The code advocates that employers should promote safety and health in the workplace through information, education and training programmes on the physical and psychological effects of alcohol and drug use. These programmes should be directed at all employees. The information, education and training programmes should also include the following information:

– General and specific to the workplace laws and regulations on alcohol and drugs, – Suggested steps to prevent such problems from occurring, and – Services available to assist the employees both within and outside the workplace. This will include information on assessment and referral services, counselling, treatment and rehabilitation. It is recommended that managerial staff should be provided with additional training in order to assist them in identifying changes in the individual’s performance and behaviour. The training will also equip managers with the necessary skills to respond to questions regarding the company policy on alcohol and drugs. After the training, they will also be able to support a recovering worker’s needs and monitor that individual’s performance when he/she returns to work. Additional training should also be provided to employee representatives In order to enable them to assist employees who require help and to identify working methods or conditions that need to be changed or improved to prevent, reduce or better the management of alcohol and drug related problems. Training would further assist them in explaining and responding to questions related to company policies regarding alcohol and drugs.

Identification

Identification of employees with problems could be conducted at different levels, including, self-assessment, and informal identification through a friend, family member or fellow employee and formal identification. Formal identification may include testing and should be done in accordance to the applicable laws and practices.

Assistance, treatment and rehabilitation programmes

The code further suggests that employees with alcohol or drug related problems should be treated in the same manner as workers with other health problems. Therefore, workers who seek rehabilitation should not be discriminated against and should enjoy the normal benefits that are offered by an employer including the opportunity for transfer and promotion. The exceptions are in those cases where it has been identified that the employee is no longer fit to do their work. In such instances, the employer should assist the employee to obtain access to counselling, treatment and rehabilitation. Assistance to employees with problems could vary according to the size of the company. Small companies could assist by providing employees with the names of identified professionals and services that specialise in counselling, treatment and the rehabilitation of employees, for example, self help groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). Big companies, on the other hand, might consider the establishment of an Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP). In other instances, employees might consider establishing their own programme.

Intervention and disciplinary procedure

The code additionally recommends that employers should be aware that an employee who suffers from an alcohol and/or drug problem might also be suffering from a health problem and should consider offering counselling, treatment or rehabilitation as an alternative before deciding to discipline the employee. Disciplinary rules regarding substance abuse should be communicated to employees so that they are clear in terms of what is prohibited and the type of sanctions for the violation of such rules.

CONCLUSION

More and more employers have established substance abuse programmes in order to respond to the problems that are created by drugs and alcohol in the workplace. These programmes save money and in some cases, they save careers, families and lives. In an effort to raise awareness about the impact of substance abuse in the workplace, the ILO implemented its code in 1995. Although dated, the code is still relevant and can assist employers develop and maintain an alcohol and drug free workplace. It is in the interest of each employer to implement such a policy, if it has not done so already. The failure to do so will continue to adversely affect one’s workplace and have a serious impact upon productivity.

REFERENCES:

Mukhi, Niloufer. (undated) How decent is your workplace? ILO publication. www.ilo.org.za – accessed in January 2004. International Labour Organisation. Drug and alcohol-abuse- an important workplace issue. ILO publication, Geneva. www.ilo.org.za – accessed in January 2004. International Labour Organisation. Code of conduct on the management of alcohol-and drug-related issues in the workplace. ILO publication, Geneva. www.ilo.org.za – accessed in January 2004.

 

Provided by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA)

By Sarah Modise 

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