Need-to-know steps to address substance abuse in the workplace

July 28, 2022

World Drug Day on 26 June helps to raise global awareness of the major problems that substance abuse poses to society. “The harms of illicit drug use can affect anyone, but they often have the deepest impact on those in crisis. The pandemic undermined physical and mental health, strained healthcare systems, and disrupted drug treatment and services,” said Ghada Waly, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in her World Drug Day 2022 address.

In South Africa, alcohol is the most abused substance, particularly by senior staff, but cannabis and over-the-counter medication (OTC) are also abused, according to a study on the prevalence of drug abuse within the workforce reported on last year by Life Health Solutions.

They note that substance abusers at work may:

  • Arrive late or be absent from work frequently
  • Miss deadlines often or perform poorly at work
  • Use more sick days under the pretence of feeling unwell
  • Perceive their job negatively
  • Struggle to get along with colleagues or supervisors
  • Make careless errors
  • Put others in danger
  • Engage in criminal activities, such as theft

While alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace is prohibited by most conditions of service, dismissing alcoholics or drug addicts can be costly. “It is legally very dangerous for employers to discipline and fire employees who commit offences due to illness or disability. For example, an employee who uses alcohol or narcotics and becomes addicted is legally classified as being ill and is protected by law,” says Ivan Israelstam, CEO of Labour Law Management Consulting.

The first approach should rather be putting mechanisms in place to help employees seek treatment and rehabilitation for dependency and addiction.

Ten do’s and don’ts

The California Employment Law Letter lists 10 tips for dealing with substance abuse in the workplace:

1. Don’t be the ostrich – if there are suspicions of abuse, rely on your workplace policy and your employee assistance programme (EAPs).

2. Establish a policy against substance abuse in the workplace.

3. Address prescription drugs specifically.

4. Consider post-offer, pre-employment drug screening.

5. Consider post-accident and reasonable suspicion drug testing.

6. Don’t engage in random drug testing without the advice of counsel.

7. Know and comply with your local ordinances regarding drug testing.

8. Promote your EAP.

9. Consider assisting an employee in lieu of firing.

10. Consider modifications to holiday and employee appreciation events.

Do you have a problem?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) poses this premise: “If you repeatedly drink more than you intend or want to, if you get into trouble, or if you have memory lapses when you drink, you may be an alcoholic. It’s a matter of whether your drinking is stopping you from leading the sort of life you want to lead. If you want to control your drinking but can’t, then alcoholism is a definite possibility.”

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) states, “All through our using, we told ourselves, ‘I can handle it.’ Even if this was true in the beginning, it is not so now. Very simply, an addict is a person whose life is controlled by drugs. Perhaps you admit you have a problem with drugs, but you don’t consider yourself an addict. All of us have preconceived ideas about what an addict is. If you can identify with our problems, you may be able to identify with our solution.”

Useful contacts

Alcoholics Anonymous: 0861 435 722;

Narcotics Anonymous: 0861 006 962;

Ke Moja WhatsApp Chat Platform: 087 163 2025