The Real Cost and Effects of Substance and Prescription Drug Abuse For Professionals and Employers

Contributed by: Jennifer Youngedyke, Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center

business-men-295469_640Many people don’t instantly picture suit-and-tie professionals when they think of a prescription drug addict. They think of the typical archetype of an addict: someone without a job, possibly living on the streets, dirty and unkempt. The reality, though, is that substance abuse is fairly common within full-time employees in the United States.

According the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 10.8 million full-time workers in the United States have a substance abuse disorder. This figure alone gives a staggering insight into the prevalence of substance, and by relation, prescription drug abuse within the professional workplace. Substance abuse by full-time employees makes up over half (55.1%) of adults aged 18-24 with a substance abuse disorder. [1]

But what role does prescription drug abuse play within the workplace, you ask? Probably a larger one than you would imagine.

The Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse Within The Workplace on Employees

The role that prescription drug abuse plays on professional employees can be physical, psychological, and stress-related. It can affect employee performance, attitude, and the overall productivity of a team or an organization.

  • Physical effects on employees include a decreased ability to perform their critical job tasks due to: withdrawal symptoms, impairment from the drug itself, poor concentration ability, lack of focus and erratic work patterns.
  • Effects on employee job performance can include, but are not limited to: inconsistent work quality, lowered productivity, increased absenteeism (including on-the-job “presenteeism”), unexplained disappearances, needless risk taking, disregard for safety and taking extended lunch or break periods.
  • Psychologically, employees show signs of potential drug abuse by displaying avoidance of friends and colleagues, speaking of frequent financial problems or blaming others for their own shortcomings, complaining about problems at home or outside of work, showing a deterioration of physical appearance or personal hygiene, and requesting time off consistently for vaguely defined illnesses or family problems. [2]

Lost work productivity (including absenteeism and poor job performance) associated with substance abuse costs the nation’s employers an estimated $197 billion a year [5], which raises the question of what employee prescription drug abuse really costs employers.

The Real Cost of Prescription Drug Abuse For Employers

Prescription drug abuse in the workplace plays a role not only related to the performance of the employee, but also affects the costs incurred to the business due to an employee’s prescription abuse. In the United States, illicit drug abuse costs employers an estimated $120 billion in lost productivity, mainly due to:

  • Labor participation costs
  • Participation in drug abuse treatment
  • Incarceration
  • Premature death [3]

Those costs can be attributed to the fact that 70% of the estimated 14.8 million employed Americans use illegally obtained drugs. [2]

As an example, the New York Times reported in June 2012 that workplace insurers spent an estimated $1.4 billion annually on narcotic painkillers (opioids). This report also found that employees who received higher doses of these drugs took three times longer to return to work compared to an employee who did not, or was prescribed a lower dose.

The Times also reported that the overall cost to treat a workplace-related injury was nine times higher than the cost of a similar injury where narcotic painkillers were not prescribed.

Additionally, employees abusing illicit drugs are three and a half times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident [5], only adding onto the risk of negative financial consequences for the organization, as well as posing a safety risk to other employees. Based on these figures, even legally prescribed, prescription drugs can have a strong negative economic effect on any business or organization.

Even with billions of dollars of lost revenue and productivity, employers are the least likely referral source for new patients admitted to treatment in substance abuse programs.

Employer and Workplace Support for Employees With Substance Abuse Disorders

Based on admissions figures for substance abuse treatment on individuals 18 and older, an employer or employee assistance program is the least common referral source, making up only 2.4% of reported admissions referrals in the nation.

317709540_2cb52662be_zAlternatively, 49.2% of individuals are referred by the criminal justice system, and 28.5% refer themselves to treatment. The difference between these figures is an astounding insight into the lack of available resources for employees with substance abuse disorders within their organizations. [6]

However, there are ways for employers to combat these figures by promoting an awareness of available services, or to make them available if they currently do not exist. This includes sharing information about how these programs can improve health and well being, as well as continued reassurance that their usage of their employee assistance program is confidential.

If an employee assistance program for substance abuse does not currently exist within an organization, there are steps an employer can take to establish one and ensure that it will be beneficial to their employees. By taking the time out to understand the issues facing their employees and executing a successful employee assistance program, the investment can help offset some of the deficit the employer will face from the effects of substance abuse among employees. [7]


Prescription drug, and by relation, substance abuse play a larger role in the workplace than most individuals would think, attributing to billions of dollars in costs related to employee substance abuse annually.

Additionally, the ability to help combat this epidemic lies within not only the hands of the employees, but the employers as well, by providing support and services for their employees to receive treatment and return to the workplace sober and living in recovery.


[1]: The NSDUH Report Data Spotlight: 10.8 Million Full-Time Workers Have a Substance-Abuse Disorder

[2]: Drugs and the Workplace

[3] How Illicit Drug Use Affects Business and the Economy

[4]: How Prescription Drug Abuse Became a Workplace Problem… and what Employers Can Do About It

[5]: Save Your Company Money By Assuring Access to Substance Abuse Treatment

[6]: The TEDS Report Data Spotlight: Few Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions Are Referred by Employers

[7] Making Your Workplace Drug-Free: A Kit For Employers

About The Author:

Jennifer Youngedyke, UI/UX Designer for LEVO Health is a writer and social media contributor for the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center, providing news and media updates along with original written content for the DSRC website.