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Dealing with the hidden epidemic of drugs and alcohol at work

07 March 2011

Drugs at work are frighteningly common. In 2007, nearly one in five Australians (17.7 per cent) admitted taking illegal drugs in the last 12 months. A third of Australian workers regularly drink at risky levels and one in every 16 works under the influence of alcohol. But this may only be the tip of the iceberg facing employers.

Ahead of his June 18 address to the Queensland Safety Conference, former drug user and now health and wellbeing advisor, Chris Parker, says the days after intoxication are perhaps even more hazardous.

\"When a person's intoxicated, there are lots of signs for managers that something's wrong and you can do tests,\" he says. \"During the coming down period when the drug may be undetectable, you could be dealing with shakes, fatigue, flashbacks, hallucinations and possibly the legacy of depression and psychosis. This may have greater risks and be considerably more difficult to assess.\"

In fact, research has put the annual cost to Australian business of absenteeism resulting from hangovers or alcohol and drug related injuries at more than $500 million. Mr Parker will tell the Queensland Safety Conference that the prevalence of drug and alcohol use in the workplace makes the cost of employee assistance programs (EAP) a worthwhile investment for larger employers.

\"The impact of alcohol and drugs on a workplace is ongoing, so simply sacking someone with a problem won't address the larger issue and does come at a cost,\" he says. \"The rule of thumb is that the cost of replacing an employee can be up to three times their annual salary. Couple this with the destruction these workers can create before they leave and you've got a compelling case to provide support.\"

That support, contends Mr Parker, needs to go further than providing a formal EAP.

\"There's a school of thought that a person needs to seek help on their own account before counselling can be effective,\" he says. \"The reality is that when a person is depressed or psychotic, you can't expect them to get up at 6am, put on their best suit and seek out a counsellor. If you remove as many barriers as possible it can enable people to engage in treatment seeking behaviour.\"

\"Even those that are motivated may baulk at talking to their line managers about their problems and, when they do, those line managers are often ill-equipped to deal with requests for help. Employers need to provide multiple routes to multiple types of assistance for drug-affected employees\".

\"Engaging a support worker who is not involved in line management but can advise managers and encourage employees to ask for help and then provide practical support through the process will make the EAP more effective.\"

A lack of information often meant employers and managers were unprepared for the demands of the recovery process.

\"Apart from understanding, the employee needs time to recover, which generally takes months,\" Mr Parker says.

\"Speaking for myself alone, I suffered four-day bouts of psychosis at a time for six months after I finished taking drugs, sometimes questioning whether they were real and sometimes being absolutely convinced and reacting physically to the hallucinations. Be prepared to give the person time off for counselling and be aware that, for some time, they might be far from the model employee.\"

The good news, says Mr Parker, is that thousands of drug-affected workers do recover every year.

\"Unfortunately, because drug use is a taboo subject, there are few ways to highlight this to the people who may be considering change,\" he says.

\"Drug and alcohol problems can be overcome but we need to have much greater awareness of what's involved - both by employers and employees.\"

Chris Parker will address the Queensland Safety Conference on June 18. Presented by the Queensland and Northern Territory division of the Safety Institute of Australia, the Queensland Safety Conference will run from June 16 to 18 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre in conjunction with the Queensland Safety Show where more than 200 companies will showcase new workplace safety products and services. For more information, visit, email or phone Australian Exhibitions & Conferences on 03 9654 7773.




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