How to Create a Substance Abuse Policy

An empty office.

The likelihood that drug or alcohol abuse is affecting your workforce—and your bottom line—is high. Alcohol use and abuse is linked to 232 million lost workdays per year, and it’s estimated that substance abuse and addiction cost U.S. employers at least $80 billion in lost revenue every year. A substance abuse policy can help you combat the effects of drug and alcohol issues in the workplace, including decreased productivity, higher rates of on-the-job accidents and injuries, and even unethical behavior and malfeasance.

Government survey data indicates that the number of adults (age 26+) with substance abuse issues, ranging from addiction disorders to binge drinking, hovers around the 10 percent mark, with a little over 9 percent of the workforce at risk for substance abuse disorders. If your workforce skews younger, the numbers for adolescents and young adults are even higher. Developing a consistent policy can help you reduce rates of substance abuse in your workplace.

What Is a Substance Abuse Policy?

A drug and alcohol policy focused on reducing abuse and addressing addiction and other negative consequences of excessive recreational substance use can convey concern for your workers’ health and safety and promote workplace wellness. Developing a set of procedures and initiatives that are easily accessible via your employee handbook and intranet can help to create a transparent and equitable workplace where consequences are clear, and employees feel comfortable asking for help when they need it.

Why Is It Important to Have a Drug Policy?

A strong drug and alcohol abuse policy can help you create a workforce that is well informed about the health risks related to substance abuse, resulting in a safer workplace with lower rates of absenteeism, addiction, and binge drinking.

Zero-tolerance policies, including random and regular drug testing, may be advisable in sectors where safety is critical, such as truck driving, heavy machinery, and healthcare. Addiction can lead to financial stress and drive poor decision making that can put your company’s reputation at risk or even result in legal liability. (Be sure to check relevant and state drug and alcohol testing regulations.)

Key Elements of an Effective Drug Abuse Policy

Should you focus on a disciplinary model or an education and treatment model? This may depend on your industry and the degree of mental acuity and physical dexterity needed to prevent workplace accidents. However you decide to focus your efforts, your drug and alcohol abuse policy should clearly state your philosophy toward substance abuse as well as the consequences of violating your policy.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides a sample substance abuse policy template that includes options that allow you to customize its various components to reflect your company’s priorities. SHRM’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Policy template provides similar customization options, along with language on treatment support options.

Today’s job seekers have made it clear that they want to work for employers who care about employee wellness and are prepared to provide the support they need to enjoy a healthy work-life balance, with 89 percent of workers who left or are considering quitting their jobs saying that they feel unsupported by their employers. This includes providing support for mental health issues, including substance abuse and addiction. Even the U.S. government’s Drug Free Workplace guidelines encourage employers to offer treatment and reintegrate workers back into the workforce rather than view substance abuse as grounds for dismissal.

Drug-free Workplaces

If you choose to have a zero-tolerance policy toward drug use that results in dismissal, make sure that your policy is clearly stated and uniformly enforced. You can also encourage a drug-free workplace by providing ample education and information about the negative effects of drug and alcohol abuse and making sure that employees have access to information about treatment resources.

Drug Testing Policy Options

Implementing a drug testing policy is one way to communicate how serious you are about discouraging substance abuse. However, as attitudes and laws regarding recreational use of substances such as cannabis shift, be aware that these policies are becoming less common and could lead some candidates and employees to look elsewhere for employment.

To ensure that your drug testing policy does not violate rapidly evolving state or local laws, the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) provides frequently updated data on legislation regarding employee drug testing. You should also be aware that many drugs that are detected through standard employment drug screening methods, such as amphetamines, are routinely prescribed to address health issues and disabilities that are covered by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Pre-employment Drug Testing

Not too long ago, pre-employment drug testing was a standard part of the hiring process for most positions. As laws and attitudes toward recreational and medicinal use of cannabis have shifted, these screening procedures have become less popular with job seekers.

Nonetheless, if your workplace or the position in question requires a high degree of mental acuity to ensure worker and customer safety, a substance abuse policy that includes pre-employment drug screening can help to ensure that you avoid hiring applicants who could increase your liability.

Post-employment Drug Testing

In some industries where safety is critical, random drug testing may be effective. Other types of post-employment testing include annual testing as part of a physical, testing due to reasonable suspicion of substance abuse, after an accident has occurred, or after employer-provided treatment for substance abuse as a condition of continued employment.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment

A substance abuse policy focused on treatment rather than retribution can help convey your recognition that dependence is a health issue and not a personal failing. Making sure your employees have access to community treatment options and helplines, as well as access to information about substance abuse, its causes, and symptoms on your company intranet as well as pamphlets and brochures in break rooms and other common areas throughout your workplace.

Train managers to recognize the warning signs of addiction, so they can spot emerging problems and approach direct reports with their concerns along with resource referrals and support.

Stress and Substance Abuse

Anxiety and work-related stress can contribute to substance abuse, as can a company culture that relies on alcohol for work-related social interaction. You can reduce substance abuse among your workforce by providing seminars and resources to support mental health and helping your employees to deal with stress in healthier ways. For example, you could:

  • Provide reduced rate gym memberships.
  • Stock your break room with healthy snacks.
  • Sponsor onsite meditation and exercise seminars.
  • Host lunch hour or after-work nutritional cooking classes.
  • Organize opportunities to socialize with coworkers that don’t involve drinking.
  • Post signups for mid-day walking clubs or company-sponsored fitness events.

These and other stress-reduction measures can promote health, wellness, camaraderie, and community within your workforce, and reduce the fiscal and human costs related to substance abuse in the workplace.

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