MKA Risk Mitigation Logo


Discussion Papers

Drugs in the Workplace

(17th Feb 2003)

Authored by Michelle Sarkis

Alcoholism and drug abuse are significant problems in the Australian workplace and both are linked to higher levels of stress among employees. For example Bass et al (1996) found that employees who use drugs have a relatively persistent pattern of absenteeism which is, of course, costly to the organization. In addition, their study also showed that drug use is related to employee tardiness as well as to absenteeism. Thus, the costs of drug use in employee lost time may be even greater than previo usly estimated.
In addition to threatening their own well-being, employees who attend work while under the influence pose a serious threat to the well-being of their coworkers because they are more prone to on-the-job accidents. National surveys documented that drug abusers will have three to four times as many accidents on the job, and four to six times as many accidents off the job, compared with individuals free from alcohol and illegal drug usage (see Bass et al, 1996). The common perception about this issue us that it is a blue-collar issue and tends to be concentrated at the worker level and in 'safety critical' jobs. As a result, white-collar workers tend to be less interested. However, Ferguson (1994) found that the largest group of males consuming hazardous amounts of alcohol was skilled and semi-skilled workers.

Symptoms of employee drug use (Stone, 1998)
- deteriorating productivity
- inappropriate or angry interactions with coworkers or customers
- frequent absenteeism or lateness
- continuous rapid or wandering speech
- drowsiness or frequent breaks
- changes in productivity after lunch
- occasional, unpredictable flashes of outstanding performance
- accidents, errors, carelessness or sloppy work
- regularly borrowing money from co-workers
- drunken behaviour, with or without the odor of alcohol
- possession of drug paraphernalia
- drug mottos on clothing or at workstation; drug inspired jewelry
- possession of a variety of medicines

While the issue of testing generates considerable debate, the introduction of workplace policies on drug and alcohol misuse is less contentious, although the extent of such policies is unknown. Tackling the problem is seen to be a joint responsibility of workers and management.

Alcohol and other drugs council of Australia (ADCA)'s drug policy 2000 links the problem to occupational health and safety issues. It states that alcohol and other drug use is not just the cause of workplace accidents and lost productivity, it can also be the outcome of bad job design and poor working environment. That is, that the problem is not just about events outside the workplace.

To develop an effective policy ADCA believes organisations should: (Mace, 2001)
- ensure all stakeholders are involved in the discussion and drafting process
- fully document the alcohol and drug policy
- relate the policy to individual workers and their work environment
- incorporate the policy into the OHS policy rather than keeping it as a separate, unrelated document
- Not necessarily infringe workers' rights
- Be fair and equitable
- Cover all employees from executive level down
- Clearly inform employees about the workplace policy
- Provide opportunities for due process where supposed breaches occur
- Include confidential referral, treatment and rehabilitation in the due process

If organisations are to effectively deal with workplace substance abuse, a clear, unequivocal policy statement defining the rights and responsibilities of the employer and employee is essential. It should be developed after a detailed assessment survey and explain why it is being implemented. The policy should also give a clear description of prohibited substance abuse-related behaviours, a thorough explanation of the consequences for policy violations and an outline of all program elements, incl uding employee assistance. In addition, thorough ongoing training for supervisors and employees is also recommended. Once these actions are in place, an organisation can proactively deal with substance abuse


The information provided on this page does not constitute treatment and in no way replaces direct advice from qualified professionals providing tailored solutions to particular workplaces and individuals.


Bass, A.R., Bharucha-Reid, R., Delaplane-Harris, K., Schork, M.A., Kaufmann, R., McCann, D., Foxman, B., Fraser, W. & Cook, S. (1996). Employee drug use, demographic characteristics, work reaction and absenteeism. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 1(1), 92-99.

Ferguson, A. (1994). Seconds out! The new way to fight executive stress' Business Review Weekly, 166(3), p.87.

Mace, J. Powerful influences at work. March, 2001, pp20-25.

Stone, R.J (1998). Human Resource Management (3rd Ed). Australia: John Wiley & Sons