The Little Acknowledged Crisis of Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace – Part 1: Scope of the Disaster

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Every September, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) sponsors Recovery Month to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover. October has customarily been designated as the National Substance Abuse Prevention Month in the U.S. For families and businesses struggling with the consequences of alcohol abuse every month of the year, I’m focusing in a two-part essay on the largely overlooked crisis of alcohol in the workplace.

Global Consequences of Alcohol Abuse

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that alcohol consumption is linked to many harmful consequences for the individual drinker, the drinker’s immediate environment and society as a whole. Such social consequences as traffic accidents, workplace-related problems, family and domestic problems, and interpersonal violence have been receiving more public or research attention in recent years, indicating a growing interest in a broader concept of alcohol-related consequences. Such consequences affect individuals in addition to the drinker (e.g. passengers involved in traffic casualties, or family members affected by failure to fulfill social role obligations, or incidences of violence in the workplace, family or social life). Ultimately, however, these events have an impact on society as a whole insofar as they affect economic productivity or require the attention and resources of the criminal justice or health care system, or of other social institutions.

The WHO goes on to note that heavy drinking at the workplace may potentially lower productivity. Sickness absence associated with harmful use of alcohol and alcohol dependence entails a substantial cost to employees and social security systems. There is ample evidence that people with alcohol dependence and problem drinkers have higher rates of sickness absence than other employees.Psychological Trauma

The WHO reports worldwide findings on alcohol abuse including a study reporting that 30% of absenteeism and workplace accidents in Costa Rica were caused by alcohol dependence. According to the WHO in India, 15% to 20% of absenteeism and 40% of accidents at work are due to alcohol consumption. Another reported study of three factories in La Paz, Bolivia found that 7.3% of absenteeism in the first two days of the work week and 1.2% of work-related accidents were directly related to the consumption of alcohol. WHO estimates that 20–22% of work-related accidents in Chile have a direct or indirect relationship with recent alcohol use. In a reported study of patients who required hospitalization for severe work-related accidents, it was found that 15% reported recent use of alcohol. It has been reported that in Latvia, alcoholism has had adverse impacts on productivity in the workplace and increased absenteeism. It is estimated that drinking and alcoholism have reduced labor productivity by approximately 10%. WHO also reports a recent survey conducted in the United States of America found that farm residents who drank more frequently had significantly higher farm work injury incidence rates (3.35 per 10 000 person days of observation) than others who consumed less frequently (1.94 injuries per 10 000 person-days).

Workplace Alcohol Abuse in U.S.

According to the Federal Government’s U.S. Office of Personnel Management, alcohol is the single most used and abused drug in America. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 14 million Americans (1 in every 13 adults) abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. Several million more adults engage in risky drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. The costs to society in terms of lost productivity, health care costs, traffic accidents, and personal tragedies are staggering. Numerous studies and reports have been issued on the workplace costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, and they report costs that range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year. Alcohol is a major factor in injuries, both at home, at work, and on the road. Nearly half of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. This is not a new problem. This issue has persisted for many decades, however it has too often been overlooked and little acknowledged as the major crisis for which it is.

Alcohol abuse in the workplace has a profound impact on safety and productivity. Most heavy and binge drinkers have jobs, with more than sixty percent employed as full-time workers. The U.S. Department of Labor noted that “there is still, however, a great deal of denial as well as numerous misconceptions among many employers about who is using illicit drugs and alcohol, and how this can directly impact their bottom line.” People who work in human resources (HR) see the contradiction. According to a Hazelden survey published in July 2007, 67 percent of HR professionals say that substance abuse and addiction is one of the most serious issues they face. But only 22 percent believe that their companies openly and effectively deal with employee substance abuse and addiction.

Brian Hughes reported that about 17.6 million adults in the U.S. currently suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. Several million more people engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that can lead to alcohol addiction. Binge drinking means drinking five or more alcoholic beverages on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days. About one-quarter of college students say that excessive drinking causes them to miss and fall behind in classes, perform poorly on exams, and receive lower grades overall. Binge drinking starts early, so by the time a person is ready to seriously pursue a career, these patterns may be hard to break. Heavy drinkers may find themselves in a similar situation as they did at school, but now their livelihood and financial future are at stake.

As the NIH-NIAAA Alcohol Alert explains that excessive problem drinking among U.S. workers can threaten public safety, impair job performance, and result in costly medical, social, and other problems affecting employees and employers alike. Productivity losses attributed to alcohol were estimated at $119 billion for 1995 (the last year of data compiled and calculated).

The U.S. Department of Labor has noted that “the economic and human costs of drug and alcohol use are astounding. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recently reported that alcohol and drug abuse cost the economy $246 billion in 1992, the most recent year for which economic data are available. In addition, numerous studies, reports and surveys suggest that substance abuse is having a profoundly negative affect on the workplace in terms of decreased productivity and increased accidents, absenteeism, turnover, and medical costs. Following are notable statistics that highlight the impact of substance abuse on the workplace:

  • In 1990, problems resulting from the use of alcohol and other drugs cost American businesses an estimated $81.6 billion in lost productivity due to premature death (37 billion) and illness (44 billion); 86% of these combined costs were attributed to drinking.
  • Full-time workers age 18-49 who reported current illicit drug use were more likely than those reporting no current illicit drug use to state that they had worked for three or more employers in the past year (32.1% versus 17.9%), taken an unexcused absence from work in the past month (12.1% versus Stress Thumbnail6.1%), voluntarily left an employer in the past year (25.8 % versus 13.6%), and been fired by an employer in the past year (4.6% versus 1.4%). Similar results were reported for employees who were heavy alcohol users.
  • According to results of a NIDA-sponsored survey, drug-using employees are 2.2 times more likely to request early dismissal or time off, 2.5 times more likely to have absences of eight days or more, three times more likely to be late for work, 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident, and five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim.
  • Results from a U.S. Postal Service study indicate that employees who tested positive on their pre-employment drug test were 77 percent more likely to be discharged within the first three years of employment, and were absent from work 66 percent more often than those who tested negative.
  • A survey of callers to the national cocaine helpline revealed that 75 percent reported using drugs on the job, 64 percent admitted that drugs adversely affected their job performance, 44 percent sold drugs to other employees, and 18 percent had stolen from co-workers to support their drug habit.
  • Alcoholism causes 500 million lost workdays each year.

In the workplace, the costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse manifest themselves in many different ways. Absenteeism is estimated to be four to eight times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers. Other family members of alcoholics also have greater rates of absenteeism. Accidents and on-the-job injuries are far more prevalent among alcoholics and alcohol abusers. “Alcohol use and abuse in the workplace can vary greatly by industry and setting. Drinking at work can potentially threaten public safety, impair judgment, reduce job performance, and can cause a multitude of other problems for employees, employers and their customers. Businesses lose well over $100 million in production due to alcohol use at work.” (Source: AlcoholAbuse.com) The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation observes that “despite such findings, less than 10 percent of working people with serious alcohol problems get any kind of treatment.”

The NIH-NIAAA Alcohol Alert explains that drinking rates vary among occupations, but alcohol-related problems are not a unique characteristic of any social segment, industry, or occupation. Alcohol abuse is positively associated with the workplace culture and acceptance of drinking, workplace alienation, the availability of alcohol, and the existence and enforcement of workplace alcohol policies. Nonetheless, the reported occupational categories with above-average rates of heavy alcohol use, in addition to #1 sector [construction worksites ], were handlers, helpers, and laborers (15.7%), machine operators and inspectors (13.5%), transportation and material movers (13.1%), precision production and repair workers (13.1%), and employees in food preparation, including wait staff and bartenders (12.2%).

According to VeryWell.com “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. It also reports that 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 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.”

Photo credit: CDC

Photo credit: CDC

An Alcohol Abuse Disaster

According to National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism “the significant presence of alcohol problems in the workforce was most recently documented in a 1997 national survey, indicating that about 7.6 percent of full-time employees are heavy drinkers (i.e., they consumed five or more drinks per occasion on 5 or more days in the month prior to being surveyed) (Zhang et al. 1999). According to that study, about one-third of the heavy drinkers also used illegal drugs.”

In addition to deaths and accidents, absenteeism and loss of production, VeryWell.com also identifies 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

Alcohol abuse can easily lead to workplace accidents. BradfordHealth.com reports that “despite the numerous safety protocols at the workplace, 40% of all industrial workplace fatalities are caused by substance abusers. These people may not realize the danger they create by using at work, or while recuperating from alcohol or drug abuse. An individual who is inebriated or hungover has decreased productivity and alertness. This means workplace accidents are more likely to happen. In fact, workplace accidents caused by inebriation or a hangover is five times more likely to injure someone. In addition, substance abusers are ten times more likely to miss work, negatively impacting themselves and others by jeopardizing their jobs and creating backlogs.”

While alcoholism can affect any industry and any organization, big or small, workplace alcoholism is especially prevalent in these particular industries: Food service, Construction, Mining and Drilling, Excavation, Installation, Maintenance and Repair sectors. (Source: NCADD National conference on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Inc.) Some research calls attention to the alcohol abuse problem among healthcare workers. One study found that from 10%-15% of nurses will abuse alcohol during their professional careers. In particular, the study found that nurses may abuse alcohol at higher rates in order to mask the stress they experience when caring for patients with cancer.

Alcohol abuse

Photo credit: CDC

DrugAbuse.com reports that “using drugs impairs decision-making abilities and physically impairs people. This is a deadly concoction when on the job. In fact, 10-20% of American workers who die at work have a positive result when tested for drugs or alcohol. A study by OSHA states that the most dangerous occupations, such as mining and construction, also have the highest rates of drug use by their employees.” “In addition to absenteeism being estimated to be 4 to 8 times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers, their family members also wind up missing more work due to related conditions. The greater risk to a business as well as employees and customers though is the fact of accidents and injuries caused by alcohol abuse. Workers either under the influence of alcohol or the following day after heavy drinking are not only more careless but less aware of what they are doing, and this can be extremely dangerous to themselves and others around them.” (Source: AlcoholAbuse.com)

“Employers suffer from hiring substance abusers in many ways. Not only do they run the risk of having deadly or dangerous accidents occur, but substance abusers also cost employers money and hurt them financially.”

Substance abusers may:
•Have poor work performance.
•Frequently call out of or arrive late to the workplace.
•Frequently change workplaces.
•Struggle with productivity.
•File for workers’ compensation claims and benefits.” (Source: DrugAbuse.com)

Measuring the Scope and Costs of Alcohol/Substance Abuse

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 the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation “about 9 percent of workers in the United States drink in ways that drain productivity while increasing sick days and health care costs, and 79 percent of our nation’s heavy drinkers aged 18 or older are employed. These facts mean that almost every employer in America has an alcohol problem.”

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.

A reported 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.

Brian Hughes (CEO, Founder, Digital Marketing Expert at Integrity Marketing & Consulting) writing in The Negative Impact Of Alcohol In The Workplace explained additional implications:

“In the workplace, two patterns of drinking arise that have a negative impact. Many people drink right before or during work hours (think lunch and company parties), while others drink heavily the night before, arriving at work with a wicked hangover or calling in sick. Together, these behaviors take a high toll on everyone involved and contribute to lost productivity, workplace accidents and injuries, employee absenteeism, low morale, and increased illness. Moreover, drinking by employees is linked to a variety of antisocial behaviors such as sexual harassment, verbal and physical aggression, and disrespect targeted at colleagues.”

SAPAA (sappa.com) reports that “smaller firms may be particularly disadvantaged by worker substance use and abuse. For example, while about half of all U.S. workers work for small and medium sized businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees), about nine in ten employed current illicit drug users and almost nine in ten employed heavy drinkers work for small and medium sized firms. Likewise, about nine in ten full-time workers with alcohol or illicit drug dependence or abuse work for small and medium size firms. However, smaller firms are generally less likely to test for substance use. Smaller businesses are less likely to have programs in place to combat the problem, yet they are more likely to be the employer-of-choice for illicit drug users. Individuals who can’t adhere to a drug-free workplace policy seek employment at firms that don’t have one, and the cost of just one error caused by an impaired employee can devastate a small company.”

Alcohol abuse does not just affect the user and the company. One in five employees have reported injuries or exposure to dangerous conditions because of a co-worker’s drinking, or have had to go beyond their regular work responsibilities to compensate for an employee who was alcohol-impaired. The consequences of alcohol abuse ripple throughout an organization as well as the abusers family and friends.

Facts and Statistics

Hughes further reported that “about 20% of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes said a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking threatened their productivity and safety. Industries with the highest drinking rates are mining (17.5%) and construction (16.5%). The cost of excessive alcohol use reached $249 billion in 2010 or about $2.05 per drink. Of all these costs, the highest by far was attributed to a loss in workplace productivity (72% of the total cost). Research also indicates that alcohol was a factor in at least 11% of all workplace-related deaths.”

According to NCADD:

  • “Workers with alcohol problems were 2.7 times more likely than workers without drinking problems to have injury-related absences.
  • A hospital emergency department study showed that 35 percent of patients with an occupational injury were at-risk drinkers.
  • Breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16% of emergency room patients injured at work.
  • Analyses of workplace fatalities showed that at least 11% of the victims had been drinking.
  • Large federal surveys show that 24% of workers report drinking during the workday at least once in the past year.
  • One-fifth of workers and managers across a wide range of industries and company sizes report that a coworker’s on- or off-the-job drinking jeopardized their own productivity and safety.”

According to Hughes, there is a physical and mental toll for alcohol abuse and it appears to be a gateway step to other substance abuse issues: “drink too much, especially long-term, and this can result in a host of physical and mental effects – none of them good. For example, drinking can make depression worse, and depression can increase drinking. People who drink alcohol are also at greater risk of abusing illicit drugs. Alcohol use is associated with a variety of illnesses such as liver disease and cancer, and binge drinkers are 72% more likely to have a heart attack. Perhaps most sobering, heavy drinking reduces life expectancy by 10 to 30 years…..Alcohol abuse is one of the top 10 reasons why employees get fired, and also related to at least four others including excessive absenteeism, the inability to get along with coworkers, not being able to perform assigned tasks, and work fraught with errors.”

Alcohol abuse is a serious crisis for workplaces. It negatively impacts productivity, safety and performance. Workers or coworkers may be injured in an accident caused by an alcohol-impaired employee and workplace violence can occur more frequently when employees have alcohol abuse patterns. An alcohol abuse-free workplace is the healthiest, safest and most productive place to work. Employee illnesses, accidents, absenteeism and productivity are all negatively affected by alcohol abuse and there are clear benefits to preventing or mitigating such abuse for every type of organization and business.

The next post (part 2) on this topic will summarize some of the recommendation responses and possible solutions for this major workplace crisis.

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