Employers who have concerns about substance abuse in the workplace have good reason. We recently posted about research noting that substance abuse in the workplace has spiked  to 10-year high. Now, the Surgeon General has sounded the alarm in a recent report on alcohol and drug use. In the flurry of headlines  about the election and politics, it took a bit of a backseat in the news, yet it is an important report dealing with an issue that should concern us all: the spike in the misuse of and addiction to alcohol and drugs – and by drugs, think both street drugs and prescription drugs.

The full report – Facing Addiction in America – includes these facts:

  • Nearly 21 million Americans – more than the number of people with all cancers combined – struggle with substance use disorders
  • One in seven people in the U.S. is expected to develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. Yet only 1 in 10 receives treatment.
  • 78 people die from opioid overdoses daily in the U.S., a number that has nearly quadrupled since 1999.
  • The annual economic toll related to alcohol is $249 billion and that the toll related to drugs is $193 billion.

The report defines substance abuse disorder / addiction:

“A substance use disorder can be diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe depending on the extent of a person’s symptoms. In this Report, addiction is used to refer to substance use disorders that can be categorized as severe and are associated with compulsive or uncontrolled use of one or more substances. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that, like milder substance use disorders, has the potential for both recurrence and recovery.”

The report offers several recommendations for key stakeholders – families, educators, healthcare professionals, local governments – but it appears lacking in addressing one of the most influential stakeholders – employers. Employers are often able to spot substance abuse problems early in deteriorating work performance or diminished productivity. The leverage of a job and associated income means that employers hold the potential to play a key role in early intervention in helping an employee to seek treatment.

The role that a Workplace Wellness Program can play in addressing substance abuse in the workplace

A good wellness program will be more than simply a fitness, weight loss and smoking cessation program and periodic promotions: It can assist an employer in creating an overall workplace “culture of health” that emphasizes the importance of both good physical and mental health.  It will offer stress management and help for modifying behaviors related to drug and alcohol use. Biometic screenings, Health Risk Appraisals and other tools can be used in self-assessment, and substance abuse coaching/counseling can also help assess problems and steer to the most appropriate form of treatment for each employee’s unique situation.

Wellness counselors can also work with employers to:

  • Implement substance-free workplace programs
  • Develop and promote policies about workplace drug and alcohol use
  • Provide drug and alcohol awareness training to managers and the workforce at large
  • Implement drug testing programs – particularly important for employees with safety sensitive roles
  • Work in tandem with an EAP benefit, which trains supervisors and managers in referrals

Additional resources


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