Substance Abuse in the Workplace

July 8, 2013

Published in the Portsmouth Herald

New Hampshire’s Employers Take a Hit to the Bottom Line

In January 2013, PolEcon Research issued its report of a study commissioned by the advocacy group, New Futures, whose stated goal is to “reduce alcohol and other drug problems in New Hampshire.” The research findings were startling to many:

•Excessive alcohol consumption costs New Hampshire more than $1.15 billion annually in lost productivity and earnings, increased expenditures for healthcare and public safety costs.
•Over $27 million in alcohol attributed absenteeism costs are incurred by New Hampshire businesses.
•Alcohol dependency resulted in an estimated 9,292 fewer males in the state’s workforce in 2011, an overall reduction in the state’s labor force of 1.2% with associated lost earnings of $403.9 million.
•More than 54,000 workers with an alcohol dependency or abuse problems are employed by New Hampshire businesses.
•Businesses which employ a higher percentage of male or younger workers such as construction, retail and manufacturing, have the highest rates of alcohol use in their workforces.

In addition to increases in the numbers of employees whose lives are affected by alcoholism, the state has seen large increases in those abusing prescription medications. New Hampshire has the second highest level in the U.S. of young adults age 18-25 who report abusing prescription pain relievers (16.78% vs. 11.94%). Nationally, there was a 40% increase in employees testing positive for prescription narcotic use between 2005 and 2009.  In 2010 Oxycodone became the second most abused drug after alcohol of those entering state funded substance abuse treatment.

What does this mean to New Hampshire’s businesses and how should employers react? The fact is that substance abuse affects individuals in all walks of life and in all age groups, and it affects not only those who are abusing but also their families, friends and co-workers. Consider the following ways in which impaired workers affect the workplace:

Lost Productivity: Absenteeism clearly results in lost productivity, especially in this era of lean manufacturing and stripped down workforces. Consider that one person routinely missing work on Fridays can affect the output of an entire team of employees.

Safety and Quality: The impaired or inattentive employee creates a higher level of risk of endangering himself or others. Workplace accidents run the gamut from driving incidents to trips and falls to misuse of equipment. An impaired worker might also threaten the safety of co-workers with physical violence.

Employee Morale:  Unquestionably, the morale of fellow employees is affected when impaired co-workers are perceived not to be pulling their weight, causing financial loss to the company or getting away with inappropriate behavior.

It is important for employers to take a proactive approach to substance abuse in order to safeguard their businesses and to reduce legal risk. There is also clearly a need to balance the rights of the impaired employee with the best interests of the company and its other workers.

Proactive risk management might include drug and alcohol testing of prospective and current employees. There are generally three types of drug testing: 1) pre-employment, 2) reasonable suspicion or post-accident/injury, and 3) random. Drug testing is a medical test and  must be conducted consistent with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). It is critical that the company have clear written policies and that they be followed. In addition, recovering alcoholics have certain protections under the ADA. Consequently, the issues of employee leave, discipline and termination must be handled with the utmost care and with the assistance of a qualified attorney.

Employers should also carefully review the benefit plans they offer to their employees. An employee assistance plan (“EAP”) is a cost efficient and effective way to address problem behaviors.

Employers should also bear in mind that employee morale can suffer and discrimination lawsuits can result when workers do not believe that discipline and promotion decisions are made fairly. Addressing problem behavior early on and documenting the actions taken is far more likely to lead to a positive result for the company and the employee.

Companies faced with employees with addiction issues should rely on the appropriate professionals who can guide them through the many pitfalls that may lie ahead: attorneys, medical, mental health, and substance abuse professionals and law enforcement all have a role to play in making the workplace safe and productive.

Charla Bizios Stevens is a shareholder in the Employment Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A. Charla can be reached at