Firms Looking Closer at Costs of Addiction


Becki Carney kept a secret for nearly 25 years. The successful sales manager for a major pharmaceutical company hid her alcohol addiction from supervisors and co-workers.

Many nights after work, she drank until she passed out. Then she'd awaken, drink again and take sleeping pills. That was her ritual, she said. Mornings brought wicked hangovers, but Carney refused to let them stop her from doing her job.

"There was no way I was going to let drinking get in the way of my career," she said. "But when I look back I see that it did cause problems. I just didn't want to recognize my alcoholism."

On any given day, 5% to 17% of American workers arrive at their jobs under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to Timothy Dimoff, a former narcotics detective and the author of "How to Recognize Substance Abuse: At Work, at Home, in Athletics, Anywhere" (Express Press, 1999). About one in 10 employees uses illicit drugs or alcohol during work hours, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Substance abusers miss an average of three weeks more per year than fellow employees and are three times more likely to be late. They're 16 times as likely to make use of health-care benefits, six times more likely to file workers' compensation claims and only two-thirds as productive as non-abusers, according to government agencies such as the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

George Bailly wasn't able to keep his addiction secret from co-workers or maintain his productivity. A founding partner of a New York-based accounting firm with 75 employees, Bailly said he turned to "drinking and drugging" after his wife died of an aneurysm in 1985. For 10 years, Bailly unsuccessfully battled growing addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin. By 1995, he estimates, he was spending $180,000 annually on his drug habits.

Not surprisingly, his partners finally bought him out.

"The fact of the matter is, it's a progressive disease," Bailly said. "It's going to keep getting worse and the consequences are going to get bigger."

Both Carney and Bailly eventually entered treatment programs and turned their lives around. Carney, now sober for 14 years, quit her job and launched a Philadelphia-based promotional products distributorship. Bailly, sober for six years, left accounting, attended law school and practices law in Chicago.

Some corporate leaders remain convinced that workplace substance abuse is declining because of increased pre-employment drug testing. But concern about on-the-job drug and alcohol abuse appears to be growing.

"I'm doing more work in this area [of employment law] than I've ever done before," said John Zaimes, a partner with the law firm Weston Benshoof in Los Angeles. "The trend I'm starting to see is employers becoming so concerned about drug use that they're looking for ways to chart new territory. They're asking me to tell them how they can push the envelope with random [drug] testing."

There's more attention to the problem of substance abuse because of the down economy, said attorney Art Silbergeld, past chairman of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s Labor and Employment section and a partner at Proskauer Rose in Century City. "When that happens, employers become concerned about efficiency. When someone's performance is on the slide, they want to know why."

Workplace drug dealing is on the rise nationally, said Dimoff, the former narcotics agent. Transactions take place in parking lots, employee vehicles and out-of-the-way locations on company premises.

To combat the illegal activity, some firms have launched surveillance operations, hired investigators and conducted drug searches. But in doing so, they put themselves at risk for invasion-of-privacy lawsuits.

Drug enforcement agencies estimate that as much as 25% of workplace drug abuse involves pharmaceuticals such as painkillers and tranquilizers.

There's no single reason for these disconcerting trends. But employment attorneys and substance abuse experts are advising company managers to take steps to protect their firms against the trends' costly fallout.

Small and mid-size companies, which employ about 80% of private-sector workers in the U.S., are most vulnerable because many don't do drug testing or have drug and alcohol policies in place, experts say. In recent years, a growing number of large firms (including about 90% of the Fortune 500)have instituted pre-employment drug screening programs and established strict substance abuse policies. Their due diligence seems to have sparked a migration of substance abusers to smaller firms, according to HR Magazine.

American companies lose an estimated $75 billion a year because of decreased productivity, lost work time, accidents and expenditures for health care and workers' compensation, the Department of Labor estimates.

But there are less quantifiable costs too, including decreased morale and declining trust. A 1998 study by JSI Research & Training Institute showed that 21% of surveyed employees reported being injured, endangered or forced to redo work or shoulder added responsibilities because of a fellow worker's alcohol problems.

Supervisors should be trained to look for signs of possible substance abuse problems. This may be evidenced by employees' increased rates of absenteeism and tardiness, "emergency" leaves from work and unexplained disappearances from the job site. Affected employees may appear moody, withdrawn and secretive. They may miss deadlines, neglect job responsibilities, bicker with co-workers and have trouble following directions.

Should supervisors suspect a problem, they should refrain from interrogating employees about possible drug or alcohol abuse.

"Do not diagnose," said Kenneth Collins, an Orinda, Calif.-based workplace consultant and employee assistance program expert.

Rather, employment attorneys say, supervisors should carefully document performance failings and restrict their discussions to the employees' unsatisfactory work. Then, if need be, they can request intercession by human resources and employee assistance program personnel, who can conduct confidential conversations with the employees in question.

"It's a very tricky situation," said Teresa Beaudet, a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown & Platt in Los Angeles. "What we counsel [supervisors] to do is ask questions about performance. Don't ask, 'Are you taking drugs?' You'll get into a swearing contest over how you've invaded their privacy."

In general, employers can be concerned only with their workers' on-the-job performance, said John Rapoport, a White Plains, N.Y.-based employee rights attorney. California is one of the few states whose constitution guarantees a right to privacy.

"It's a dance between what you need in the workplace and what they do in their personal lives," Beaudet said.

And what if Joe, a star employee, is rumored to be keeping crack cocaine in his locked desk drawer? Does Joe's supervisor have "reasonable suspicion" to conduct a search of Joe's desk or test Joe for drug use?

"Reasonable suspicion is so subjective," Zaimes said. "That's where you have the greatest chance of your supervisors stepping over the line."

Combating workplace substance abuse requires a four-pronged attack. Employment experts suggest firms institute a comprehensive substance abuse policy that explains their drug testing procedures and the recourse for positive drug test results, on-the-job substance abuse, illegal drug possession, drug dealing and impaired performance.

Employers who want the right to search their work site for contraband--when reasonable suspicion exists--should explicitly state their expectations in the policy.

These substance abuse policies should be explained to employees, preferably in person by human resources personnel. And company heads should be sure they're not telegraphing mixed messages about drinks and drugs to their employees. Is alcohol routinely served at company functions? Are workers and managers encouraged to congregate at local watering holes for after-work bull sessions?

Open-door policies for venting job-related grievances also must be implemented. Work that is perceived as boring, stressful or isolating may contribute to employee drinking, according to a study published in Alcohol Health & Research World. Other studies have shown correlations between low job autonomy, lack of control over work conditions and on-the-job harassment with substance abuse.

Educating employees about the dangers of substance abuse through seminars, handouts and newsletters is important too. Company-sponsored health promotion programs could further reduce workplace abuse problems.

Though some firms regard employee assistance programs as costly benefits, statistics show that they can save companies money. For every dollar employers invest in an assistance program, $5 to $16 in substance-abuse-related costs are saved, according to the Labor Department. Employee assistance professionals can recognize problems, refer troubled workers for diagnosis and treatment and provide follow-up.

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