Substance abuse in the workplace may, in many cases, be found to be a dismissible offence. Although this can be viewed to be an individual’s problem, it can also affect an employee’s performance at work resulting in absenteeism, accidents, illness and mortality – all of which could add to the employer’s costs.
Substance abuse has been linked to negative occurrences in the workplace such as stress, monotonous work, shift work, work requiring relocation and the frequent changes in co-workers and supervisors (ILO). The aim of this article is to examine how substance abuse affects the workplace and what measures employers and employee representatives could implement in order to eliminate the problem.
HOW SUBSTANCE ABUSE AFFECT THE WORKPLACE The issue of substance abuse in the workplace has always been met with a dismissive attitude and swept under the carpet. However, when all incidents at work are accessed collectively it becomes important for the company to see it as a great concern. According to studies conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the abuse of alcohol and drugs in the workplace, the following was found:
• Absenteeism of employees with alcohol and drug problems was three times higher than for other employees,
• Employees with chemical dependence problems claimed sick benefits three times more than other employees and also made compensation claims five times more than other employees,
• 20% to 25% of injuries in the workplace involved employees under the influence of alcohol, and
• Drugs and alcohol supplied at work amounts to 15% to 30% of all accidents at work.
It is not only heavy drinking that might result in incidents at work, but even low quantities of alcohol consumption have resulted in incidents. A study conducted in the 1990’s has shown that even though alcohol is consumed in small quantities the effects can be costly for the employer. The study was conducted amongst airline pilots performing routine tasks in a simulator under three alcohol conditions. The outcome was that, before the pilots could drink any alcohol, 10% of them could not perform all tasks correctly. After a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10/100ml, 89% could not perform all the operations correctly and after all the alcohol had left their system, 68% could not perform all the operations.
Clearly this reveals that substance abuse should not be seen as only affecting heavy users as incidents can result from the consumption of low quantities of alcohol as well. Thus, it becomes important for employers to implement preventative measures and management programmes rather than just concentrating on the identification and rehabilitation of heavy users.
DEVELOPMENT OF AN ALCOHOL AND DRUG POLICY FOR THE WORKPLACE According to the code employers, together with employee representatives, should develop, in writing, a policy on alcohol and drug abuse. If possible, the policy should be formulated with the help of medical personnel and other experts who have specialised knowledge regarding alcohol and drug related problems.
The policy should include information and procedures on:
•Measures to control “substance abuse" in the workplace through good employment practices.
•Restriction on alcohol, legal and illegal drugs in the workplace.
• Prevention through information, education and training programme
Identification of employees with problems could be conducted at different levels, including, self-assessment, and informal identification through a friend, family member or fellow employee and formal identification. Formal identification may include testing and should be done in accordance to the applicable laws and practices.
• Assistance, treatment and rehabilitation programmes The code further suggests that employees with alcohol or drug related problems should be treated in the same manner as workers with other health problems. Therefore, workers who seek rehabilitation should not be discriminated against and should enjoy the normal benefits that are offered by an employer including the opportunity for transfer and promotion. The exceptions are in those cases where it has been identified that the employee is no longer fit to do their work. In such instances, the employer should assist the employee to obtain access to counselling, treatment and rehabilitation.Assistance to employees with problems could vary according to the size of the company. Small companies could assist by providing employees with the names of identified professionals and services that specialise in counselling, treatment and the rehabilitation of employees, for example, self help groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). Big companies, on the other hand, might consider the establishment of an Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP). In other instances, employees might consider establishing their own programme.
• Intervention and disciplinary procedure The code additionally recommends that employers should be aware that an employee who suffers from an alcohol and/or drug problem might also be suffering from a health problem and should consider offering counselling, treatment or rehabilitation as an alternative before deciding to discipline the employee. Disciplinary rules regarding substance abuse should be communicated to employees so that they are clear in terms of what is prohibited and the type of sanctions for the violation of such rules.
*The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).