• Steven Smith


Updated: Jun 18

Drug use in the workplace… This may seem like a crazy concept to so many of us.  Most people do not know much about drug use in general and have an image in their mind of the ‘drug user’ looking like a street junkie with a needle hanging out of their arm.  It would probably come as a huge surprise and shock to find out that roughly 75% of drug-using adults are currently in the workplace *From a study found on This sounds outrageous but let's for a moment look at the word ‘drugs’ and re-evaluate what exactly this means.  

The word drug is defined as a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.  This means that one would include alcohol and legally prescribed pharmaceuticals in this category.  While it is true that not everyone that drinks and uses both legal and illegal drugs may be Substance Dependant, it should be noted that problems in the workplace may arise from the misuse of all of these substances i.e., alcohol, pharmaceuticals as well as illegal drugs.

An overview of some of the predominant drugs in the South African Workplace

Alcohol – 2.4% of South Africans suffer alcohol dependency with roughly 33% being heavy drinkers *as per recent studies from WHO & BMC Medicine.  That equates to roughly 20 million South Africans that have a problem controlling their alcohol intake.  Another shocking statistic from the study done by BMC Medicine is the 10% of ALL deaths recorded each year are attributable to alcohol use.

‘Uppers’ – This this the colloquial name for stimulants including many prescription medications such as Ritalin (Methylphenidate) and street drugs such as crack-cocaine, cocaine, and ‘Tik’ (crystal meth) under the Methamphetaminegroup.  This grouping of substances appears to give you energy and help you focus.  But for an addict or substance dependant, the quantities that are usually taken would make you anxious, unable to focus, and can be fatal.

‘Downers’ – Also knows as depressants.  This category includes Opioids (Heroin, codeine-based painkiller), ‘Benzos’ (Benzodiazepine medications such as various tranquilizers), and ‘Barbiturates’ (sleeping pills and sedatives).  These have become commonplace in the workplace due to many people suffering from stress and anxiety getting scripts from their GP or Phycologist for these medications, without warning of their addictive nature.  Taken as prescribed, these medications might not be problematic at all, but as mentioned above, the misuse thereof can have devastating effects on the person and company. (note: by classification alcohol is included as a depressant)

The impact of drug use on the workplace

The negative implications of having a substance dependant in the workplace far-reaching.  These implications include absenteeism, safety hazards & increased job turnaround.  All of which adversely impact the financial bottom line of a company.  

An employee that is substance dependant, will often be late for work or miss work altogether (due to being hungover &not getting enough sleep). More serious reasons for missing work or being late may include the person having drug withdrawals and having the need to acquire substance to be able to function at work.  This happens when an employee has an addiction to drugs such as heroin, cat, or crystal meth (tik).  

Again, one needs to re-evaluate the stereotypical image you might have surrounding a ‘drug addict’ and realize that more often than not, the addict in the workplace may go unnoticed and will be a functioning member of the team.  It might take a long time to notice that there is a problem with this person.  But there are signs that should be taken seriously - Extended lunch breaks, missing days of work, leaving early, being overly chatty or seeing major mood swings and personality changes.  

While this could be perceived as a crisis, it could also be viewed as an opportunity to help this person.  The employee got hired for their experience and ability to do the job.  It would, in my opinion, be more beneficial to the employee and to the company to offer help and guidance, and support to the person as opposed to vilifying the employee and following disciplinary protocols.

Alternative views on addiction

There was a study done by Bruce Alexander in the late 1970s at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, where rats were offered the option of either pure water to drink or water mixed with heroin and water mixed with cocaine.  The study was conducted with 2 separate living environments for the rats.  The one environment was an empty cage for 1 solitary rat.  In this scenario, the rat always chose the drugged water and usually ended up dying from it.   In the other scenario, the rats were given friends of both sexes, good food, toys to play with, and enough space to mate and have fun.  The rats in this scenario, while still having the option for either pure water or the drugged water, preferred pure water.

What does this teach us about addiction?  It shows us that while there is an aspect to addiction that is a physical dependence, there is an additional important aspect to it, where the person is lacking a human connection.  Many people see addiction as the opposite of connection and showing love and understanding to an addict, it can alleviate the need for that person to bond with their substance or behaviour and instead bond with the people around them.

The way forward for people using in the workplace

There are 2 ways to deal with addiction and drug use in the workplace.  The one would be the obvious route of a disciplinary hearing or immediate dismissal depending on the extent of the problem.  This would force the addict into a potentially further downward spiral and the company would be left with additional costs of job turn-around and training of new staff.  The other route would be to have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) that included drug awareness campaigns, random drug testing, and a program of assistance to those that feel they may have a problem.

With the prevalence of drug and alcohol dependence/addiction in South Africa, I feel that by offering help and assistance to people with drug problems instead of initiating punitive measures, has overwhelming benefits to the person, the company, and society at large.  

There are many ways of helping an addict move from active addiction into recovery and the benefits of having a recovering addict in the workplace are great.  The addict in recovery usually displays increased levels of motivation, loyalty, and employee engagement.  They have much less absenteeism and have a generally much healthier lifestyle.  

Where to go to for help

There are many options that a company may look at for helping the drug user.  These depend greatly on the severity of the problem and the type of drug.  Recovery and rehabilitation may include anything from an out-patient program where the employee would attend weekly groups relating to addiction recovery to a primary care facility where they could register for a 21-day program.  Most medical aids cover a stay at registered treatment centers.  

For an assessment or more information regarding your next step. please feel free to contact us.

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