The practice of people being intoxicated on alcohol or drugs — either before clocking into their jobs or while at their place of work — causes a range of expensive and prohibitive problems for workplaces and industries, such as lost productivity, injuries, legal liabilities, and a rise in health insurance premiums.
Around 16% of people admitted to emergency rooms because of injuries sustained on the job have alcohol in their system.
The National Safety Council writes that 16% of people in the workforce have some form of substance use disorder. The NSC pointed out that workers in the services sector had the highest rate of disorders related to use of prescription pain medication.
About $81 billion is spent every year to address issues of drug abuse in the workplace. The NSC researchers broke that amount out into three categories:
- Lost productivity
- Health care costs
In addition, almost 80% of people who are struggling with substance use disorder steal money or material from their place of work to buy or trade for drugs.
Prevalence of Substance Misuse in the Workplace
Research has found that 22.5% of people say they’ve used alcohol or drugs while at their jobs.
One in every five women report using drugs or alcohol while on the clock. For men, it is one in every four.
About 20% of people say they’ve used cannabis for recreational purposes while at their jobs; 5% say it’s a daily habit, while 13% of people say they’ve used cannabis more than once a month while on the clock.
As many as 66% of people responding to surveys say they’ve consumed alcohol while at work. Cannabis was the second most consumed substance, and 10% of people said they used prescription opioid painkillers outside of any medical need while at their jobs.
People who work from home, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, tend to be more likely to take drugs or alcohol while they are working compared to those who have to be in an office. People with work-from-home jobs, either full-time or part-time, are 10% more likely to be intoxicated while working at home than those whose job is in an office.
People who use cannabis are more likely to get high at work than to be drunk during their day. About 41% of the people who work remotely full-time admit to being high before they start work and still working while under the effects of cannabis.
Those who use medical marijuana tend to adhere to their prescribed amounts, but 20% of those who admit to using cannabis while on the job say they use more of their medical supply than prescribed during work hours. From that group, those who work from home are most likely to use more than they were prescribed.
Coworkers Who Use Substances
When it comes to substance abuse and the workplace, the prevalence goes beyond personal use. Knowing that your coworkers are using drugs and alcohol is a factor.
Only 38% of employees say that they don’t know anyone who uses drugs or alcohol while at work. In addition, 20% of people say that a few coworkers indulge in substance abuse while on the job, and 16% report knowing “many” coworkers who partake.
Professions With the Highest Rate of Substance Abuse
Some of the highest rates of on-the-job alcohol use occur in the mining industry, where 17.5% of employees report consuming alcohol while at the job. A close second is the construction industry at 16.5%. Naturally, the actual figure of substance misuse in these professions could be theoretically higher.
Since the rise of the opioid epidemic, the issue of people working in such a physically intensive profession self-medicating either with prescription opioids (like oxycodone, hydrocodone) or recreational opioids (like heroin or fentanyl) has become a significant problem for the construction industry.
Construction workers have a very high risk of being prone to injury and being in such constant pain that they use their prescription opioids off-label, or resort to diverting opioids from illicit sources to try to manage their distress.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that from 2011 to 2015, employees in the Commonwealth’s construction or mining industries accounted for 26% of all known opioid deaths.
People in the hospitality industry — restaurants, food service, hotels, and other related areas — also have higher rates of dangerous drinking habits and drug consumption, often while on the job.
In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that workers in this industry had a 16.9% rate of substance misuse in the past month and also the highest rate of use of illegal drugs, at 19.1% of those surveyed.
In one study, employees working at a national restaurant chain reported 80% of male employees displayed unhealthy drinking patterns while still reporting to work, and 64% of female employees did the same.
Due to the intense personal and professional demands, a number of people in the health care industry — specifically, doctors and nurses — also turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pressure, sometimes to self-medicate while working.
Around 14% of people who work in hospitals and clinics have some form of substance use disorder. Some research has suggested that doctors tend to be more likely to misuse prescription drugs than their patients are.
In 2009, 50.3% of doctors enrolled in a physician health program reported patterns of heavy drinking, and 35% reported off-label opioid use. Past research indicated that the use of prescription opioids in this way was done to alleviate the physical and emotional pain of hospital work.
This also speaks to the problem of substance abuse and the workplace being complicated by the availability and accessibility to chemical substances. People working in the service industry, for example, might have unfettered access to alcohol. People working in hospitals might have similar access to opioids and other controlled substances.
Arts & Entertainment
People who work in the arts and entertainment industries also have wide access to recreational substances. They are often surrounded by other people who either participate in substance use or actively encourage it.
Performance anxiety and stress related to unhealthy schedules contribute to 14% of people in the industry reporting past-month drug use and 11.5% partaking in heavy drinking.
In 2016, the American Bar Association released a study that found that 20% of the 13,000 registered lawyers who participated in the study fit the description of problem drinkers, which is twice the rate of other professionals of a similar education.
Younger lawyers, those practicing for less than 10 years, show the highest rates of substance misuse and mental health issues, such as anxiety, stress, and depression. Unfamiliar with the grind and pressure, they may turn to alcohol, stimulants, and narcotics to cope with the professional expectation, the time infringements on their personal lives, and the ever-growing number of billable hours.
Why Certain Professions Are More at Risk
The pattern that emerges from all the professions that have such high rates of substance misuse is a set of factors that contribute to the likelihood of a workplace or industry having a substance misuse problem. The pattern might help to identify which employees might be at more risk of developing a substance misuse problem from their job or one that they then bring to their job.
These factors include the following:
- Accessibility to drugs and alcohol on site
- Isolation in the job
- Mental health stress, both at work and away from work
- Job pressure
- Social culture (some professions have a culture of drinking or drug use)
Psychology Today notes that “hustle culture,” the trend of being available for work 24/7 (in the form of long overtime, working from home even when not necessary, and replying to office emails and texts after work hours) contributes greatly to burnout. It also contributes to many employees using drugs and alcohol to stay awake longer and self-medicate feelings of despair or guilt.
The National Safety Council found that a staggering 75% of employers have been directly affected by their employees who take opioids for off-label use, but only 17% of those employers feel like they are equipped to deal with the issue.
The Pandemic’s Role
Some of the problems of substance misuse in the workplace have gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic, largely because employees who are struggling with a dependence on drugs and alcohol have few reasons to not consume their substances during the day.
The Society of Human Resource Management reported on the results of a survey of 1,011 American workers that discovered 25% of respondents were high or drunk while on a work-related video call. Furthermore, 20% of respondents admitted to using cannabis, alcohol, or another drug while doing work at home.
A whopping 73% said that if they had to return to the office, they would actively miss being able to consume cannabis. And more than a quarter of those surveyed acknowledged that one of the things they liked about working from home was the freedom to drink and use drugs as they worked.
How Employees Can Discourage Substance Misuse in the Workplace
As employers create wellness programs and acknowledge the human cost of substance misuse in the workplace, the Department of Labor praises this as a “win-win” for both management and their employees.
When bosses take the time to invest in substance misuse treatment, employee assistance programs, mental health days, and other forms of care for their workers, the benefits are widespread.
- 88% decrease in arguments and conflicts with management
- 91% improved attendance
- 93% decrease in work-related mistakes
- 97% decrease in job-related injuries
What are some ways management could prepare their workplace to deal with the problem of substance abuse? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration advises that offices make sure that everyone in the workplace understands the dangers and risks, both professional and personal, of engaging in substance misuse (at home, but specifically while on the job). 
Further, management should inform everyone in the office about any available programs and resources that cultivate employee health and wellness, including drug-free policies. Employees should also be motivated to support the policies and resources. Without that engagement, their effectiveness will be limited.
Perhaps most crucially, employers should work on creating a shared responsibility for the success of their workplace’s drug-free policies and wellness programs. This could mean an ongoing review and update process, checking in on employees, and offering company-wide support and approval of employees who use the programs.
Employee Assistance Programs
One such program is an employee assistance program (EAP), where a company offers free and confidential assessments, counseling, and referrals to employees who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems.
EAP counselors are trained in addiction science and organizational psychology. They work as consultants to management and leadership to identify the risk factors for substance misuse in a given workplace, and to address the emotional and mental needs of employees.
In the event that there is an incident at the workplace related to an employee’s substance abuse or mental health, EAP counselors can also work with witnesses (or survivors) to ensure that their own psychological and emotional needs are addressed.
How Bosses Can Address Substance Misuse in the Workplace
What can a boss do to help their struggling colleagues? Privacy, confidentiality, respect, and support are critical in encouraging workers to take time off. It’s also critical to let them know that they will be welcomed back to the office once they are better.
If the employee’s substance misuse is proving disruptive, some addiction interventionists are trained to lead work-based interventions. It’s a good idea to consult an employment attorney to make sure you are acting within the bounds of the law on any actions you take.
Ultimately, it’s important for a boss to enforce professional boundaries and expectations on all their employees. When employers take a proactive approach with substance misuse, it promotes a safer environment for everyone in the workplace.