1 in 10 U.S. Workers Reports Substance Abuse

According to a new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), some one in 10 U.S. workers aged 18 to 64 reported an addiction to alcohol or drugs in the past year. The report breaks down substance abuse rates by category, suggesting that mining and construction workers are more likely to drink heavily and that those in the accommodations and food service industries are most likely to abuse illicit drugs. As well as offering comparisons with previous years to see how the problem is progressing, the study could help inform prevention activities, with the hope of bringing down the rate of substance abuse among U.S. workers.

Substance Abuse in the Workplace

The problem of substance abuse in the workplace is fairly widespread, and it has been shown to negatively impact productivity and to increase absenteeism, turnover, the risk of accidents and healthcare expenditures. The cost of alcohol misuse to the U.S. was estimated to be $185 billion in 1998, with the vast majority of the cost ($134 billion) due to lost productivity. More than 15 percent of U.S. workers report that they’ve been on the job while under the influence of alcohol at least once in the previous year, and around 9 percent have been to work while suffering from a hangover. Alcohol isn’t the only problem, though, with marijuana use at work being a significant and common issue, as well as the use of prescription medications.

The report is based on data gathered from 2008 to 2012 by SAMHSA, with over 111,500 adults with full-time jobs being included in the resulting sample. The statistics were compared with rates observed from 2003 to 2007 to look for trends in the abuse of substances by industry category.

The results show that overall, 9.5 percent of workers have struggled with dependence on or abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year. For past-month use across industries, about 8.7 percent had used alcohol heavily, and 8.6 percent had used illicit drugs.

For specific industries, the rate of past-month heavy alcohol use ranged from 4.4 percent (for those working in healthcare and social assistance) to 17.5 percent (for those working in mining). The researchers controlled for expected differences according to age and gender, too, and for those in the mining industry this appeared to play a significant role. However, the second-highest rates of past-month heavy drinking were seen in the construction industry, and in this case the inflated rates didn’t disappear when variations in demographics were taken into account. So, it seems construction workers do generally drink heavily more frequently than people working in other industries.

For past-month drug use, the highest rates were seen in the accommodations and food services industry, with 19.1 percent of workers having used illicit drugs in the past month. The lowest rates were seen in the public administration industry. Those in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry were the next-most likely to have abused substances in the past month, with 13.7 percent having done so. For substance use disorder (addiction) in the past year, 16.9 percent of those in the accommodations and food services industry reported problems. However, these findings are thought to be explained more by demographics than anything related to the job in particular.

Trends in Substance Abuse Among Workers

The report also looked at changing trends over time, but it’s worth noting that this didn’t take into account changes in demographics, so the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. From 2003-2007 to 2008-2012, past-month illicit drug use rates went up from 16.9 to 19.1 percent among those in the accommodations and food services industry, and also increased for the educational services industry, from 3.7 to 4.8 percent. There were also some decreases over time: in the construction services industry, past-month drug use rates dropped from 13.9 to 11.6 percent, and past-year addiction rates decreased in construction, management, wholesale trade and manufacturing. Other changes occurred, but these were the only ones that were statistically significant, meaning that they were distinguishable from chance variation.

What Can Be Done?

The problem of alcohol and illicit drug use among workers is effectively the same as the society-wide problem with addiction and drug abuse, but the fact that specific at-risk sectors were identified means that prevention and treatment interventions can be targeted to the areas where they’d be most beneficial. Of course, drug testing would enable employers to identify the people who have issues, but things like employee assistance programs—which offer employees psychological help with personal issues—are a vital addition to such measures. If employers around the country increase their vigilance as well as offer much-needed support and guidance to those struggling with issues, we can start to make a dent in this serious, ongoing issue.

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