There Are Huge Hidden Costs Of Alcohol And Drug Problems In Australian Workplaces

Flickr/ Zach Klein

As an employer or a work colleague, would you know if someone in your workplace was struggling with an alcohol or other drug problem, or a mental illness, or both?

In severe instances the warning signs might be obvious. However, people often don’t reach out for help at work, meaning addiction may not be identified as the cause of their lower productivity, sick days or erratic behaviour. Yet 62 per cent of people who misuse alcohol and other drugs at harmful levels are in full-time employment, which accounts for approximately 300,000 workers in Australia. In addition, the incidence of co-existing mental illness among people with drug problems is rising at an alarming pace. At Odyssey House, one of Australia’s largest alcohol and other drug rehabilitation services, more than half of clients also have a mental health problem, a ten-fold increase in ten years.

Given the economic and personal burden of substance misuse and associated mental illness, it is vital that workplaces give top priority to identifying and/or supporting workers suffering with addiction-related problems, or at the very least to promoting a safe workplace culture.

The figures alone are compelling.

The annual economic cost of alcohol and illicit drug misuse to Australian society is estimated at $23.7 billion. Leading researchers Collins and Lapsley found that alcohol misuse cost society $15.3 billion and illicit drugs cost $8.2 billion, while alcohol and illicit drugs acting together accounted for a further $1.1 billion in the in the 2004/05 financial year.

The International Labour Organisation estimates 20 to 25 per cent of all occupational injuries are a result of alcohol and other drug use. Collins and Lapsley (2002) estimate a $5.5 billion loss of national productive capacity in the paid workforce as a result of drug-attributable death and sickness. Other studies cite alcohol use as responsible for 5 per cent of all workplace deaths and up to 11 per cent of non-fatal injuries (Pidd and Roche, 2013). The Australian Drug Foundation says the annual cost of absenteeism alone due to alcohol is estimated at up to $1.2billion!

So what factors contribute to alcohol, other drug misuse and mental health problems in the workplace, and what can employers do to reduce the likelihood of these problems?

Harmful use of alcohol (and other drugs) occurs at all levels in organisations and is more prevalent in some industries than others. The focus on alcohol is because illicit drug use is not a major factor in Australian workplaces, although it is increasing (the exception is the transport industry where the use of amphetamine type stimulants has been reported by some drivers). There are differing explanations for the way workforce factors impact on the consumption patterns of workers, but a unifying and consistent explanation is workforce culture. Additional factors include:

  • Workplace stressors including shift work
  • The work environment
  • Poorly designed equipment
  • Fear of losing one’s job
  • Conflict with a supervisor
  • Peer pressure
  • Discrimination and/or prejudice
  • Personal stressors including marital or personal relationship problems and financial problems
  • Various adverse consequences in the workplace occur due to the use/misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Alcohol affects depth perception, estimation of speed, reaction time and eye/motor coordination and concentration. Consequently, the use of alcohol can increase the probability of people injuring them themselves or others because of compromised reflexes and judgement. It can affect productivity because it causes an individual to work at minimal capacity which increases the workload for others, lowering productivity and compromising product and service quality. Even low blood alcohol levels can introduce added risk into situations that would already be considered hazardous.

    Personal consequences and costs to employees of drug misuse may include: loss of job; loss in wages; diminished physical and mental health; medical expenses; difficulty meeting financial commitments; demotion at work; interpersonal problems with family, friends and work mates; and loss of self-esteem. This can set up a vicious cycle where the consequences of a person’s drug misuse and/or mental illness add to their burden.

    Work mates can suffer too, such as from: an unsafe work environment caused by a drinking or drug-using colleague; the need to cover for a colleague’s poor work performance; the embarrassment if forced to “dob in” a mate; and disputes.

    The responsibility of employers regarding alcohol, other drug use and mental health problems can be difficult to determine. In most cases employers and HR departments don’t have enough information to attribute staff absenteeism to alcohol and other drug misuse. Also, most alcohol and other drug misuse occurs outside of work hours. And, although we are making headway in encouraging people to seek help for alcohol and other drug dependence and mental illness, affected people still feel significant shame, guilt and fear in disclosing their problems to loved ones, let alone employers or work mates.

    However, employers can play a significant part in addressing the role their workplace plays in people’s harmful use of alcohol (and other drugs). A helpful stance is to adopt a failsafe duty-of-care approach whereby employers create a positive workforce culture and foster an environment where employees feel they can speak up and seek support for their problems without retribution. Many larger organisations offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program for staff and their family members to seek employer-funded professional help.

    Guidance is also available from government. For example, the Workplace Health and Safety Act of NSW, 2011, describes what is “reasonably practical” in relation to an employer’s duty of care to ensure health and safety. Work Cover NSW’s booklet “Alcohol and other Drugs In the Workplace” outlines how to identify alcohol and other drug-related users and how to develop an alcohol and other drug policy.
    By the time people come to us at Odyssey House seeking professional help, most have been struggling with alcohol or other drug dependence for many years and have reached rock bottom, having perhaps lost jobs, income, homes and family connections. The challenge for Australian employers is to take responsibility for the workplace they create and promote employees’ welfare to reduce the likelihood of problems occurring… and to support those brave enough to step up and admit they need help.

    With billions of workplace dollars and thousands of lives on the line, the stakes are high and the potential benefits are enormous.

    People seeking help for alcohol and other drug dependence, including those with a co-existing mental illness, can contact Odyssey House on 02 9281 5144 (no referral is necessary) or, or the Australian Drug Information Network

    Photo: supplied.

    James A. Pitts is the CEO of leading rehabilitation service provider Odyssey House. James has worked in the field of alcohol and other drugs since 1978 and has headed Odyssey House NSW since 1984. Highly respected in the Australian and international treatment sectors and the wider community, James is a founding member and board director of the Australasian Therapeutic Communities Association. He has contributed to state and national drug policy through various boards, working parties and expert committees and was a delegate to the Australia 2020 Summit. He is often called upon to speak publicly and in the media about alcohol and other drug issues.