Studies by Quest Diagnostics, one of the United States’ largest medical testing companies, have shown higher rates of drug usage by American workers. In 2016, three drugs, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine, reached usage rates representing a 12-year peak. In 2015, 4 percent of employee drug tests were positive, and that rate rose to 4.2 percent in 2016.

The effect of substance abuse on the labor force in the United States varies depending on several factors, but there is no question that the effect is significant. Employers list figures of 25 to 50 percent when reporting how many job applicants do not pass drug tests.

The 33,000 Americans who lost their lives to opioid overdose in the year 2015 are 33,000 people who are permanently removed from the workforce. Nearly 6 percent of adults from ages 25 to 54 did not participate in the workforce at all in 2016 because of illness or disability. How many of those cases were due to substance abuse disorders is unknown.

Hardest-Hit Industries and Geographic Regions

With an estimated $16 billion in productivity losses estimated to be due to opioid addiction (and that is excluding healthcare costs), employers, as well as employees, are suffering. Hardest-hit states tend to be in “rust belt” regions, but that is not always the case. The eight states that have been hit hardest by drug overdose deaths are West Virginia, New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Utah, Colorado, California, and Ohio.

Substance abuse disorders involving opioids hit all industries too, though some experience a greater effect than others. For example, construction and mining tend to experience higher rates of opioid addiction among their workforce, while agriculture, finance, insurance, and real estate tend to have lower rates of opioid addiction in their workforces.

Employers Must Become Attuned to Warning Signs

Many employers already test job applicants for drug use, but they must also become attuned to signs of substance abuse disorder among people they already employ. Safety professionals must be particularly well-educated in detecting signs of substance abuse due to the greater potential for liability in the case of safety incidents.

Patterns of employee behavior are important. For example, employees who routinely call in sick on the same day of the week may be exhibiting signs of addiction. Changes in personality can indicate a substance abuse problem, as can a new pattern of missed deadlines, or new problems with hand-eye and motor coordination. Of course, all of these may be due to problems other than substance abuse, but whatever problems exist should be explored and addressed.

Opioid addiction

Changes in employee performance must be explored for their root causes.

How Drug Testing Can Help

Workplace drug testing of existing employees needs to be done with an eye toward treatment and referral of employees who have substance abuse disorders. Testing must also comply with applicable federal and state laws and collective bargaining agreements, and records must remain strictly confidential.

A clear, consistent policy that applies across the board is the only fair way to implement drug testing, and employees should be notified well in advance. Finally, it is prudent for any employer that wants to implement employee drug testing to review the policy thoroughly with legal counsel before implementing it.

Helping Addicts Access Professional Help Is Key

It is important for employers and recruiters to realize that people who lose their jobs due to substance abuse are not necessarily permanently unemployed. Access to treatment and rehabilitation can greatly increase the chances of a person with a substance abuse disorder going into long-term recovery and becoming a valuable member of the workforce once again.

Testing positive for substance use does not always have to be a firing offense, as many employers struggling to maintain sufficient employee rolls are finding. In some cases, employees who test positive for substance use are put into treatment programs as well as reassigned if they happen to be employed in dangerous jobs. In other words, helping employees fight addiction is often a smarter business decision based on cost when compared to the costs of repeatedly firing, recruiting, and hiring.

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