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

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.

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.''

One reason is cost, which has dropped dramatically in the last decade. A relatively new form, called ``crack'' or ``rock,'' can be bought on the street for $3 or $5 a ``hit'' -- the price of a movie ticket.

Another reason drugs -- including cocaine, but more often prescription drugs and marijuana -- are invading the ranks of blue-collar workers is boredom, especially on the factory floor.

``We're changing from a time in which a lot of people's work is governed by a machine -- say, on an assembly line, where the rate at which people have to do things is determined by a machine -- to a time in which people are simply machine-watchers,'' says Don Tepas, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Connecticut.

``Both of these extremes are boring,'' but a ``machine-watcher'' has more flexibility, he says.

``Boredom, as frequently as high demands, has made for various problems with stress,'' says Levine. ``And certainly chemical use would be a way to medicate that stress.'' Companies get tougher

General Motors took a dramatic approach to what it felt were catastrophic drug problems at its plants.

Faced with theft from employees trying to support their habit, intimidation of workers who were not involved in drug and gambling rings at the plants, potential accidents, and shoddy work by drug-impaired workers, it has launched several sting operations using undercover investigators.

One, about two weeks ago, nabbed 10 workers for running a drug and gambling ring in a plant in Flint, Mich.

While companies used to look the other way (since admitting a drug problem hardly instills confidence in the buying public), they are now trying to nip it in the bud.

For one thing, if there is a drug addict in the office, ``it's not unlikely they'll try to encourage colleagues to use the drug,'' so the addict-turned-dealer can support the habit, says Ms. Salazar.

For years, companies have offered their workers employee assistance programs, either in-house or with outside counselors. When the problem with alcohol and other drugs persisted, they started adding written policies threatening dismissal if an employee refuses testing and treatment. Safety vs. rights

About a quarter of the Fortune 500 companies have some form of drug screening, mostly testing prospective employees. Fewer, but a growing number, do urinalyses on current employees (who have greater legal rights than prospective employees) suspected of dealing in drugs. Fewer still do random drug testing.

The government is quickly putting such measures into place where public safety is involved. It is raising controversy and serious legal questions: Government employees have more protection than private-sector employees because of constitutional restrictions on government actions.

The Federal Railroad Administration, for example, tests new employees for drug use and tests a current one if the manager has ``reasonable suspicion'' that he or she is using alcohol or other drugs on the job.

The administration says that between 1975 and '84, alcohol and other drug abuse played a role in at least 48 accidents, which resulted in 37 deaths, 80 injuries, and $34.4 million in damages.

The Federal Aviation Administration is starting to test pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and others in a position to affect safety. Similar regulations are cropping up in cities across the country involving policemen and transportation workers.

Earlier this year the President's Commission on Organized Crime recommended that drug testing be mandatory for government employees and employees of government contractors.

Despite the extent of substance abuse, people working with employees are cautiously optimistic about rolling it back. By catching it early on in the workplace, counselors say they can often steer a user away from drugs before reliance becomes overwhelming.

Moreover, the threat of being fired appears to be more effective than almost any other incentive in stopping the use of drugs, including excessive alcohol.

Add to that the much-publicized dangers to even experimenting with drugs -- most recently the death of basketball star Len Bias -- and you have a society more wary of drugs.

But it's a slow process, says Salazar. It goes beyond just weaning specific individuals from using drugs, she says.

It means ``changing a massive acceptance of drugs as part of our culture.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Drugs in the workplace: . . . beyond accusations to helping out
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today