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Updated 19 August 2013

Drunk on the job

Boozy lunches, suspiciously long bathroom breaks, another day "off sick". Most drug abusers are employed - and some jobs carry a heavier risk than others.

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Boozy lunches, suspiciously long bathroom breaks, another day "off sick". Most drug abusers are employed - and some jobs carry a heavier risk than others.

This issue is in the news since City of Cape Town officials estimated that about 10% of their 27000 staff have an addiction problem.

“Substance abuse in the South African workforce is on the rise,” says Ronelle Sartor, former executive officer at the South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP) and now director of Phoenix House Rehabilitation Centre.

The common impression that drug abusers come from the ranks of the derelict and unemployed is false, she says: the overwhelming majority (about 70%) are in the active workforce.

The most visible drug abusers – those in the final stages of addiction – can’t keep down a job. But at any one time most abusers are in the earlier stages of the process, and still able to go relatively undetected in the workplace.

High-risk jobs for substance abuse
No occupation is immune, says Sartor, but the following groups are at particularly high risk:

  • Brewing and distilling workers
  • Hoteliers and barmen
  • The mining industry
  • Company directors
  • Domestic workers
  • Seamen and people in international employment settings
  • Professionals such as doctors and lawyers
  • Female managers
  • Military personnel
  • Oil rig workers
  • People in the advertising and film industries

Where risk comes from
There are various factors that make people more prone to drug abuse in certain jobs, including:

  • Availability of alcohol and drugs. Brewery workers and barmen are an obvious case in point; domestic workers, who often have access to alcohol in their employers’ homes, are another example.
  • Stress. This is a factor in dangerous physical jobs such as oil rig work, or jobs that carry high levels of responsibility and performance anxiety like top managerial positions. Female managers may suffer stress because of high expectations and pressure from male colleagues to ‘keep up’. Abusers in this group often choose tranquilisers and sleeping pills.
  • Social pressure. The pressure to party after work and at work-related events is particularly strong in some industries, such as advertising and film.
  • Isolation. Separation from normal social or sexual relationships could be problematic. Mine workers, executives and sales reps who spend at lot of time travelling often experience loneliness that can lead to substance abuse. Seamen and people in international employment settings are often made further vulnerable by boredom and social pressure.
  • Very low or very high income. Earners at the bottom end of the income scale tend to struggle with high stress at work and home; they often blow their whole salary on alcohol. High earners can afford the more sophisticated illegal drugs such as cocaine.
  • A job in the health professions. Among professionals, health care workers are, ironically, at risk because of a combination of emotionally draining work and access to drugs.

Which drugs are the main culprits?
Alcohol, given its legal status, social acceptability and availability, tops the list, costing South Africa almost R9 billion per year.

Second are the other legal drugs: over-the-counter and prescription medications like painkillers and sleeping pills.

Sartor cites dagga, heroin and cocaine next. She points out that while there certainly are many employed people using illegal drugs, (and certainly when it comes to a cocaine or heroin habit, you need lots of cash to support it) they tend to be less popular among the employed, because their use is generally easier to spot.

Dagga is more prevalent among blue-collar workers, while only the high-income earners can afford cocaine and heroin.

'Invisible' abusers cost employers dearly
An estimated 6%-20% of a workforce is likely to be substance-dependent, but most of these are 'invisible' to colleagues and employers.

The issue of workplace substance abuse refers not only to the more blatant, 'classic' cases – a half-jack in the desk drawer or lines of coke in the bathroom; drug abuse at home, lunch and after-hours functions spills into the workplace too. Serious negative consequences include low productivity, failure to meet deadlines, inappropriate behaviour, absenteeism and poor time-keeping.

For example, binge drinking after payday often results in a two- to three-day absence. Extended lunch hours or absenteeism after lunch could indicate lunchtime drinking.

Drugs in the workplace means a higher likelihood of workplace crime, conflict, violence and accidents. Over 50% of accidents in the workplace are drug-related, and theft at work and other criminal activities are trebled. This often leads to employers having to fork out more for legal costs and security.

Substance abusers also raise health care costs, being more likely to heavily utilise health insurance and medical aid. (In one study in the United States, dependent drinkers accounted for 89% of medical benefits paid out.)

Overall, an undetected drug abuser costs his employer a further 25% of his wages, states Sartor.

How to spot a drug problem
Sartor says the following are tell-tale signs:

  • Decreasing work performance and productivity
  • Forgetfulness, poor concentration, poor judgement calls
  • Erratic work patterns
  • Failure to meet deadlines
  • Loss of interest and motivation
  • Impaired communication and inter-personal skills
  • Poor conflict management
  • Aggressive or inappropriate behaviour
  • Dishevelled appearance
  • Lateness and absenteeism

- (Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated March 2013)

The difference between abuse and addiction
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