More than one-fifth of full-time workers report binge drinking in the past month, about 12 percent report illicit drug use in the past year and one-third are smokers, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Meanwhile, in 1995 alone, employers lost $276 billion due to low productivity, accidents, tardiness, absenteeism and mistakes on the job that stemmed from drug and alcohol abuse problems, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
And over the last decade, a wealth of research has also found that many job and personal characteristics can contribute to substance abuse, including low levels of job complexity, high work demands, anxiety about work, job dissatisfaction and poor interpersonal relations with supervisors and co-workers.
While there is sound national prevalence data on substance use among the employed, there is little on actual substance use impairment while employees are at work, says psychologist Michael R. Frone, PhD, a researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions.
To address the knowledge gap, Frone is conducting a national survey to examine substance use and impairment during working hours, particularly factors that contribute to use during the work day, the prevalence of use and impairment at work, productivity issues, and how the morale and performance of nonsubstance abusing employees are affected by other workers' substance use.
Frone expects the survey, funded by the NIAAA, will show that employees' use of substances off the job and on-the-job will be related to different types of productivity outcomes. For example, substance use and impairment off-the-job will be primarily related to tardiness and absenteeism, while on-the-job use and impairment will be primarily related to performance outcomes, such as task performance, accidents and injuries.
However, Bob Stephenson, director of Workplace Programs at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, notes that, regardless of whether a person's substance use habits are affecting the workplace now, they eventually will.
"It's not so much where the person is impaired by their substance use, but the fact that they are employed, and that the workplace is an opportunity to help educate, identify, intervene and treat," he explains.
More than 70 percent of adult drug users are employed, finds the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse--6.7 million full time and another 1.6 million part time.
That's where employee-assistance programs (EAPs)--many run or staffed by psychologists--are stepping in to help substance abusing employees. About half of all full-time employees ages 18 to 49 said they have access to an EAP or other type of counseling program for substance abuse issues, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
But there's room for more psychologists to help design, implement and run programs, says Stephenson.
"We could use psychologists to develop EAPs that say 'We have studied this problem and this is what we recommend that you begin to do.' To answer the key questions: Where are the needs? What are the tools available? And how can we apply them in new and effective ways?" he says.
Both Frone and Stephenson also point to another frontier in workplace issues: adolescents and young adults. Roughly half of adolescents are employed part time, which increases their risk of being exposed to substance use, especially when they work with older teens and adults who use alcohol or illicit substances, Stephenson explains.
Recently, Frone completed an NIAAA-funded survey exploring teens' drug use habits on the job. In the study of 319 employed 16- to 19-year-olds, Frone found a high percentage of adolescents reported using substances at work or going to work impaired during the preceding nine months: 32 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls used alcohol and 33 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls used marijuana. Some of the biggest predictors of workplace alcohol and marijuana use were believing alcohol or marijuana use can improve cognition and behavioral performance, exposure to co-workers who use alcohol and marijuana at work and high levels of work-to-school conflict.
The research seems to suggest that youngsters need more guidance at a critical juncture of the transition from high school to independent adulthood.
"Psychology can develop programs that could make that rite of passage a positive experience that sets young people up for success," says Stephenson.