Human Capital & Careers

How to Address Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Employee assistance programs do work, says a utility company's CEO.
Michelle GabrielleJanuary 26, 2001

Workplace substance abuse continues to nag at corporate performance, and if the worst thing an employer can do is ignore the problem, the second worst thing a company can do is simply fire the troubled worker and get rid of him for good.

“It is much more expensive to ignore the problem than it is to recognize the issue and deal with it affirmatively,” says Fred Hafer, CEO of GPU Inc., a utility holding company in Morristown, NJ.

The question is, how to deal with the problem effectively and without harming the company’s financial performance. Hafer described his firm’s approach at the Conference Board’s 2001 Employer Health Care Conference, held earlier this week in New York.

To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, one needs only to consider the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which says that workplace drug and alcohol abuse cost American businesses $100 billion each year. Alcoholism is responsible for 500 million lost workdays each year.

In addition, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that as much as 10 percent of the U.S. workforce suffers from a chemical dependency problem, and is functioning at only two-thirds of its potential.

Hafer says, “If you’re running a business, it is difficult to remain competitive when one out of every 10 employees is giving you two hours of productivity for three hours of compensation.”

Instead of ignoring the problem, American businesses must find a way to solve and prevent it, thus “finding ways to reduce costs and maintain their bottom line,” says Hafer.

“Firing is not the easy way out and can just get you deeper into the problem,” says Hafer, who categorizes the issue of chemical dependency in the workplace as a crisis deserving national urgency. “The fight against chemical dependency is an all-out war.”

The chemical dependent employee is late for work about three times as often as his or her peers,” Hafer says. He or she requests early dismissal two times as much, and is two-and-a- half times as likely to be absent from work more then seven days. A chemical dependent employee also has greater chances of getting hurt on the job is therefore five times more likely to file a worker’s compensation claim.

Hafer says that employers can understandably be tempted to ignore chemical dependent employees, adopting a “path of avoidance.” But, he adds, chemical dependence can have just as much as an effect on a co-dependent as it does on the actual user.

Neglecting to act upon the signs and symptoms of a substance abuser can turn a supervisor into an enabler, Hafer says. Employers should take preventive measures, and monitor employee performance on a regular basis. Most importantly, employers should address symptoms of chemical dependence as a performance issue.

“An employee assistance program (EAP) is an incredible resource for all types of workplace issues and problems,” says Hafer, who notes that his own company has significantly benefited from an EAP in terms of both cost and performance.

A highlight of GPU’s EAP includes enabling employees to enroll in a professional rehabilitation program while receiving full pay. The idea is to encourage employees to face their addiction and seek treatment, without having to worry that their pay, or even worse, their jobs, will be taken away. Many workplaces and HR teams can refer employees to alcoholics anonymous or another local support group. The program also encourages other employees to identify chemically dependent coworkers, without having to feel responsible for taking food off the family table.

GPU’s rehabilitate-at-full-pay policy costs the company approximately $8,200 in wages and treatment costs, covering, on average, a 22- work day absence from the workplace. In comparison, it would cost the company about $15,000 to recruit and hire a replacement for that employee, says Hafer, noting that the amount does not include “intangibles such as on-the-job experience, site-specific knowledge, and cultural fit.”