Drugs in the workplace: what employers need to know

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It is estimated that between 5% and 35% of employees are dependent drinkers and approximately 7% to 20% have drug problems, according to a study on the prevalence of drug abuse within the workforce in South Africa. Therefore, it’s vital for employers to effectively handle drug abuse in the workplace. Use our tips for insight.

The extent of drug abuse in South Africa is alarming, with 1 in 10 people admitting to abusing drugs. It’s a problem that’s rife in the workplace too, particularly among farm workers, people who work in the transport and mining industry, medical workers, musicians and artists.

Drug abuse physically and mentally impairs you. Therefore, employees who struggle with substance abuse may be less productive and may injure themselves or others on the job.

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

Employees with substance-abuse problems may also make careless errors, put others in danger or engage in criminal activities, such as theft, at work. Alcohol is the most abused substance in South Africa, particularly by senior staff, but cannabis and over-the-counter medication (OTC) are also abused.

OTC medication is available without prescription from pharmacies, supermarkets and other health and wellness stores. These medications include pain pills like anti-inflammatories and cold medication like cough syrup, and repeated use can result in addiction or dependence.

In recent years, there has also been an increase in the abuse of medications like Ritalin and Concerta, which are used specifically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Since the medication increases alertness and concentration, it’s used by professionals, students and athletes to increase productivity.

Prescription medication should always be used as directed by a healthcare professional, since some medications have addictive ingredients. Talk to your doctor when you receive a new prescription and ask about side effects – especially addictive properties. Prescription drug misuse also occurs when prescription medication is shared among friends, family and co-workers. While sharing is usually done with the best intention, it can be very dangerous, so avoid it.

Signs of substance abuse at work

Most people who abuse drugs will try to hide their problem from their employers and co-workers and signs may vary depending on the kind of addiction. Common warning signs include:

  • irrational behaviour, such as blaming co-workers for their mistakes
  • moodiness and indifference for no apparent reason
  • an increase in the number of breaks during working hours
  • openly speaking about relationship or financial problems
  • sweaty hands, red nose, bloodshot eyes and lack of personal hygiene
  • frequently asking for salary advances or borrowing money from co-workers

How to approach employees about drug abuse

Employees with a problem of drug abuse may not admit to their addiction, as they may fear stigma or job loss. If you suspect a colleague or subordinate has a drug-addiction problem, it’s important to approach them. This will help them to get treatment as soon as possible and lower the impact their drug use could have on the company.

It’s best to do this privately and you should involve their direct supervisor, the head of the department and human resources. Drug-abuse policies and procedures differ from company to company, but some things you should consider when approaching them could include:

  • letting them know you’ve received a report that they’ve been abusing drugs
  • avoiding accusing or judgmental language, as drug addiction is often related to mental health issues
  • explaining the company’s drug abuse policy and ensuring that you are sharing information as per the South African laws on drug abuse
  • offering resources or treatment options if available

Where to find help if you or someone you know has a drug problem

For more advice related to substance addiction, read these helpful articles:

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a professional. E&OE.


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