Drugs and workplace productivity

Over recent decades, many organisations, especially large companies, have started taking the common employer branding mantra, our people are our biggest assets more seriously. With more research and understanding of their workforce, businesses now know that a happy and healthy employee and an engaged employee is a more safe and productive employee and a better contributor to the bottom line.

In line with this research, businesses have continued to build knowledge in crucial areas such as productivity, acknowledging that it is influenced by a number of different factors, both at home and in the workplace.

The Australian Government reports productivity has been steady, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour increasing by 1.6% during 2014, and Australian employees have self-reported higher levels of productivity. Despite this, Australian businesses still face challenges in ensuring their biggest assets contribute to the bottom line as effectively as possible.

Developing successful strategies to build performance rests on an organisation s ability to determine factors which promote productivity, and those factors that reduce it. With the Australian Drug Foundation estimating alcohol and other drug issues cost Australian companies $6 billion each year, and researchers estimating they cause an annual $5.5 billion loss in national productive capacity, it is important illicit drug misuse is top-of-mind when determining influences on workplace productivity and approaches to improvement.

Use of illicit drugs in the workplace

In 2008, the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction reported 2.5% of the workforce acknowledged being at work while under the influence of illicit drugs. Interestingly, the same report showed in industries such as hospitality, 31% used illicit drugs in the previous year, close to a quarter of construction workers and retail workers also used in the same period, and various industries, including trade and media, also reported use in more than a third of people. Fifteen percent of the general population reported using an illicit drug over the same period.

Different drugs produce different side-effects in users, and any one drug may result in a variety of side effects across the user group.

Of note, among users, there are those who arrive at work still under the influence of pre-work use, and those who use drugs at work either due to addiction or in an aim to improve their workplace functionality. Of those using illicit drugs at work due to addiction or for recreational reasons, cannabis is the most common drug of choice. Cannabis is used by around 10% of the Australian population in any given year, with more than 200,000 people in the country addicted at any one time.

While figures indicate use as a proportion of the working population remains relatively low, it highlights there is a population of people who use drugs, such as methamphetamine (usually in the form of speed or base), to increase their focus, confidence and energy at work, and improve productivity. It suggests these users often see their use as a means to an end, as opposed to an illicit drug problem.

While in the short term, drugs such as methamphetamine may have the desired effect, in the medium and long term they can result in psychosis, including paranoia and hallucinations, increased distractibility, memory loss, aggressive behaviour, decreased thinking and impaired motor skills.

The effects of drugs on workplace productivity

Drugs like cannabis have an immediate and ongoing effect on productivity with users experiencing decreased focus and concentration, motivation and alertness. Cannabis can also have an effect on social motivation, and as such, can affect an employee s ability to relate to their colleagues, clients or customers. In the long term, cannabis users have an increased risk of developing dependence, respiratory illness and mental illness.

While the effects on a team can be quite obvious diminished relationships, added pressure on non-users, poor collaboration it is also important to consider more far-reaching implications. With side effects such as lack of focus and motivation, and potential social issues, some users may have increased absenteeism, or may injure themselves or someone else, meaning loss of time and potential workers compensation. Though not as financially far-reaching as alcohol-related workplace harms, illicit drug use can be a significant and ongoing drag on the business bottom line, especially when combined with alcohol or other drug use.

Though drugs like methamphetamine may appear to have a positive effect on productivity, their capacity to be addictive, and effects on focus, attitude and ability to think, can severely impact a person s contribution to the workplace.

Identifying and managing drug use at work

Many organisations do not conduct workplace drug testing, due to a lack of evidence supporting this method outside industries such as transport and logistics. Ensuring adequate training in identifying possible drug use, for crucial departments such as HR and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), and ongoing training for managers, may make a considerable difference to a business s bottom line in the medium and long term.

The key to identifying drug use in the workplace is making sure it is recognised as a potential issue by workplace auditors and HR/OHS professionals. From a HR and OHS professional s perspective, continuous contact with managers and employees, and a role-driven focus on building relationships, will ensure changes in behaviour or productivity will be identified quickly. As a next step, ensuring HR and OHS professionals consider drug use among other influences on performance is important. For many, especially those in white-collar environments, this may mean redeveloping or evolving procedures for employee analysis so drug use, like personal issues or inter-staff and management issues, are top-of-mind.

From a wider-business perspective, drug use needs to be considered at a higher level. Often in companies performing poorly, or experiencing decreasing revenue or increasing costs, workplace audits are conducted to identify the causal factors in diminishing performance. While individual employee analysis will be undertaken at a lower level, it is important auditors consider or suggest possible drug issues, if examinations do reveal factors that correlate with the effects of drug use.

Managing drug use issues in the workplace is largely dependent on the agreed workplace drug and alcohol policy. If a business doesn t have a policy, developing one is a vital step in ensuring education and also consistent approaches to identifying and rectifying drug use at work.