Most Australian employers are well aware of the fact that people use drugs and alcohol for many reasons. It is generally agreed that the employer will implement a drug and alcohol testing program in conjunction with other efforts to manage working conditions, improve safety, and increase employee well-being. Despite tremendous efforts on the part of employers and unions to help workers maintain healthy lifestyles and avoid using drugs and alcohol, researchers found that there is still a, “…lack of understanding about factors that influence employees’ alcohol and drug consumption patterns.”1 In other words, employers understand substance abuse is associated with a variety of factors, but they do not necessarily know what those factors are.
Work stress is one of the factors influencing drug and alcohol consumption patterns, and mental stress is caused by a variety of conditions including tedious or boring work, irregular hours, dangerous or intense work, job insecurity, and other.2 Stress is a physical and mental condition, therefore employers need to be concerned with employee mental health as much as physical safety. Mental health is not just a topic for health professionals, though many shy away from recognizing it or dealing with its causes out of fear some well-intentioned action or statement could be misinterpreted.
Addressing Whole-Person Issues
Let’s face it – It is easier to address physical health than mental health because physical problems are usually measurable and visible. When someone is injured, it is obvious. Mental health, on the other hand, is more subtle. Whilst it is obvious when unsafe physical conditions exist, how does an employer identify intangible mental health factors like successful social networks, the type of workplace subcultures, or employee attitudes towards drinking or use of illicit drugs?
What does this have to do with drugs and alcohol? It is generally accepted that people with mental health disorders are more likely to be substance abusers. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2004 found that two out of five people who used illicit drugs during the past 30 days said they were experiencing high levels of psychological distress. The two most common forms of distress were mood disorders and anxiety.3 Since high stress can destroy a person’s sense of well-being and mood, it is clear that mental health is not just a topic for psychiatrists. When people are mentally stressed, they will often turn to amphetamines because they restore a false sense of well-being.
The growing awareness that mental well-being and substance abuse are closely tied together is leading to increasing discussions concerning the role of employers in substance abuse intervention strategies. Since most people who are drug abusers are also employed, employers can integrate their drug and alcohol policy and drug testing programs into a broader company-wide wellness program. The broader wellness program can address the many issues that create mental stress.
Keeping D&A Programs in Context
There are obvious advantages to this approach. Two of the most important are that workers learn how to develop healthier lifestyles and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. In addition, employers demonstrate greater understanding of what it takes to develop overall well-being and that mental health is as important as physical health in the workplace. Drug and alcohol policies and procedures should be placed in context to reflect the fact they address life issues as much as workplace issues.
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- Ken Pidd and Ann Roche. (2013, July). Workplace alcohol and other drug programs: What is good practice? Retrieved from Australian Drug Foundation: http://bit.ly/181w0c9
- Frone, MR. (2008). Are Work Stressors Related to Employee Substance Use? The Importance of Temporal Context in Assessments of Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use, Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 199–206. – See more at: http://bit.ly/1eBCK5E
- Lynne Magor-Blatch. (2008, October). Substance use in the 21st Century: Different or more of the same? Retrieved from Australian Psychological Society: http://bit.ly/1if0fSr