Workplace Culture

Substance-Abuse Intervention Works Best When the Boss Steps In: Study

By Matthew Heller

Jul. 10, 2012

Enforcing a corporate substance-abuse policy is easier said than done. Overaggressive enforcement can result in claims by workers for invasion of privacy and researchers concluded in 2002 that “managerial efforts to contain employee drinking problems by means of stronger policy enforcement may offer, at best, limited utility.”

But a new study from the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions may provide managers with some encouragement. Supervisor contact—detecting a substance-abuse problem through normal interaction with an employee—has little effect on employee alcohol or drug use, the study concludes. But supervisor enforcement, or “the ability of supervisors to identify employee substance-use problems as well as their willingness to address employee substance-use problems,” can be a potent combination, the study suggests.

“It’s only when employees think their supervisor knows how to detect substance use—and is willing to do something about it—that employees’ drinking and drug use on the job decreases,” says Michael Frone, a co-author of the March study, in a news release.

Jerry Gjesvold, manager of employer services at Serenity Lane, an alcohol- and drug-use treatment center in Eugene, Oregon, says the study confirms that managers should be trained on how to spot the signs of alcohol and drug abuse. “Too often, managers and supervisors do not get to the point” of detecting abuse, he says.

“The majority of companies offer [training in detection] after something happens” to an employee, Gjesvold adds. “When I get a call from a company … it’s because something happens.”

A national survey published in 2007 by the Hazelden Foundation, which operates addiction-treatment centers in five states, found that only 22 percent of human resources professionals said their company was proactively dealing with substance abuse. And 20 percent cited lack of experience in identifying substance abuse and addiction as a personal barrier to helping employees with those issues.

“Managers are so afraid of invading someone’s privacy and doing something wrongfully,” Gjesvold says. “They’re not sure what to do. … So they don’t do anything.”

The dimensions of the problem are daunting. According to a 2006 Research Institute on Addictions survey, 15.3 percent of the U.S. workforce drink before work, drink during work hours or work under the influence of alcohol. Illicit drug use before work or during work hours was reported by 3.1 percent of the workforce, and working under the influence of illicit drugs was reported by 2.9 percent of the workforce.

The U.S. government has estimated the annual cost of substance abuse to businesses at more than $110 billion, including workers’ compensation and medical costs, absenteeism, lost productivity, and employee turnover.

Three of four previous studies failed to support a relationship between supervisor “social control”—that is, contact and enforcement—and employee alcohol use. The institute’s researchers went into more detail, asking a sample of 2,429 workers to respond to such statements as: “I believe my supervisor is very skilled at identifying workers who might have an alcohol or drug problem” and “I believe my supervisor is willing to confront a worker who appears to be working high on or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

Supervisor enforcement, the study concludes, is “significantly and negatively related” to drinking within two hours of reporting to work, drinking during the workday and impairment by alcohol during the workday. The results were similar for on-the-job use of illicit drugs. “[O]n-the-job alcohol use, as well as on-the-job and off-the-job illicit drug use, may be responsive to supervisor enforcement,” the study says.

According to Gjesvold, the keys to successful supervisor enforcement are knowing what to look for and “knowing what to do when you see it.” Supervisors should, he says, be watching for employees who display erratic behavior, become more talkative or vocal, smell of alcohol, or have motor-skills issues. “What I have found works best … is watching for failure to perform,” Gjesvold says.

If a manager does not know what to do, Gjesvold advises, they should talk to a superior. “The worst thing you can do is wait and see what happens. What I see far too often is waiting too long.”

The Research Institute on Addictions study is part of Workplace Substance Use: A National Prevalence Study, a $1.4 million research project funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Frone and co-author Jonathan Trinidad note that, “In addition to supervisor enforcement, there are a number of other specific conditions that represent a lack of workplace social control and therefore may put employees at risk for alcohol and illicit drug use.”

These include: “lack of formal and informal policies and disciplinary actions regarding substance use, and a lack of top-level management support for workplace substance-use policies.”

Matthew Heller is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email

Matthew Heller is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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