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Drugs in the workplace: . . . beyond accusations to helping out

By Barbara BradleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1986


JIM didn't know he had a drug problem. It crept up on him. In fact, he saw using cocaine as part of his work. For the past four years, he had been selling computers for a large computer manufacturer. He first tried coke at a party, when it was offered to him by a potential client. They became friends, and a month later he closed on a big contract with his friend's company.

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After a while, he began to weary of the pace. The cocaine seemed to help him get the energy and self-confidence to go into the endless stream of sales meetings. Sometimes he would be high all day. A few drinks at night would help him get to sleep.

Then Jim's manager noticed that Jim wasn't closing deals as often as he used to, even though he was on the road more than ever. He seemed distracted. His manager sat him down one day: Was something wrong?

Jim replied that he was having problems at home but that he was working them out. The manager suggested he get some counseling through the company's employee assistance program.

At first Jim balked, but, with the implicit threat of being fired if he didn't improve his performance, he acquiesced. That started one of the most difficult chapters of his life, but the one that helped him salvage his job, his marriage, and his self-esteem.

Jim is not a real person. He is not even typical, because there is no typical drug abuser in the workplace. They can be found on the factory floor and in the board room, in high-pressure jobs and in tedious ones.

Drug abuse on the job cuts across race, sex, economic status. Like Jim, most workers with drug-associated problems find their difficulties often build up slowly.

``Drug abuse is an equal-opportunity disease,'' says Lenore Salazar, an employee assistance counselor at Parkside Medical Services Corporation. Cost of the drug culture

Now corporate America is looking the problem in the eye, combining tough measures (such as drug testing) with efforts to rehabilitate its work force (through employee counseling and medical treatment). But as the problem persists, some wonder whether companies are getting at the root problems of the ``drug culture.''

When baby-boomers moved from the school to the workplace, companies began to see evidence of the drug culture filter down to the corporate bottom line.

Some say evidence includes loss of competitiveness in world markets, slipping productivity, higher health-care costs, and skyrocketing damage awards for faulty products.

Intangibles, like tarnished company morale and reputation, don't have a price tag.

The loss in productivity from ``substance abuse'' -- of both alcohol and other drugs -- reached nearly $100 billion in 1983, according to a study commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

There are some 4 million employees whose work is impaired because of drug use, estimates Heinrich Harwood at the Research Triangle Institute, which performed the study. Drug-using workers are 28 percent less productive than their peers and they cost business $33 billion in '83 in lost productivity, he says.

And the 10 million to 12 million workers impaired by alcohol alone were 21 percent less productive than their peers, costing $66 billion in productivity. Blue-collar, white-collar chemical

Such figures belie the cost to a specific corporation, to workers, customers, or the public at large. On Wall Street, drug-related theft and account manipulations cost clients millions of dollars.

One such incident at Kidder, Peabody, a large brokerage house, resulted in a multimillion-dollar loss. The client recovered the money, but only because Kidder paid more than a million dollars out of pocket to supplement its insurance coverage.

Kidder and other major Wall Street firms, including Goldman, Sachs, now have urinalysis for new employees to test for drugs.

Cocaine and other stimulants fit into the fast track, says David Levine, the Washington, D.C., director of Human Affairs International, the largest outside employee assistance program.

People in competitive, fast-paced jobs such as investment banking or stock trading may turn to drugs to give them the delusion of self-confidence or energy. ``They want to keep up with their peers or their perception of their peers,'' Mr. Levine says. ``They want to keep on this accelerated track they've put themselves on.''

But he says that while cocaine ``started out being hipper in white-collar circles, now it's a blue-collar, white-collar chemical.''