Substance Abusers Don’t Want to Work. Right? Wrong!

alcohol testingThe man has been using drugs for approximately 10 years. About five years ago he started using ice (methamphetamine) and ended up homeless and poor, and alone after his girlfriend left him and his family connections were cut. His main quest each day was making the kinds of friends who would supply him with more ice. 1

This scenario is the image most people have of drug addicts. Addiction is like a beast that clings to the person and will not let go, destroying everything dear in their life. Getting a job was out of the question for the man in the example because he could not pass a drug test, and the drug’s effects on his body and mind were becoming severe. It is people like him who influence the image other people have of substance abusers, making them come to the conclusion that anyone regularly using drugs has no interest in working because all they want is more of the drug of choice.

Wanting a Life Back

It may come as a surprise that over 60 percent of Australian drug users are employed. They are not street-roaming addicts with bodies full of sores. They come to work most days, hiding their drug use. The same is true for alcoholics. In fact there is a term called high-functioning substance abuser, referring to people in high-level or responsible positions like executives, lawyers, health professionals, and so on. No one knows they drink heavily at home or are using drugs on and off the job. The workplace drug and alcohol testing programs have discovered people like nurses and airline pilots are using drugs or alcohol, which always surprises the public when the story breaks.

There are many myths about substance abusers. One of them is that they are mostly unemployed. A less discussed myth is that people using drugs and alcohol do not want to work. The man in the scenario turned to his mum for help when he hit rock bottom, and she took in him because she believed he was sincere about wanting to get off and stay off drugs. He is now trying to stay clean because he wants his life back, which includes friends who do not do drugs, trusting family relationships, and a job.

The Lessons of Myths

The Australian Job Access site addresses myths about employment and substance abuse. With millions of Australian drug users in the marketplace, the government is trying to dispel the myths to enlist employers in the effort to improve the lives of people who want to help themselves. Topping the list as Myth 1: People experiencing substance abuse don’t want to work. The truth: Many do want to work to help them stop or stay off drugs.2 Though employers are rightfully not interested in hiring anyone currently using drugs, there are lessons that can be learned from recognising the myth exists and then applying the new knowledge in workplace settings.

One lesson is that recognising the relationship of employment and self-esteem is important when delivering health education information or drug and alcohol testing. Any action the employer takes in the workplace should have purpose and respect people’s privacy whilst recognising that life is filled with pitfalls. This philosophy drives the Australian harm minimisation policy.

Not Always an Addict

Another lesson to keep in mind is that people with substance related issues will not always do poorly. Too many believe that once a drug addict, always a non-productive drug addict. The truth is that people who test positive for drugs or alcohol are often ready to accept counselling or treatment and get their life back on track.

The random drug and alcohol testing policy and procedures are designed to keep the workplace safe by identifying those who need to address substance use, whether as a continuing employee or a worker who must get help before becoming eligible for re-employment anywhere.

People often make assumptions that are wrongly based on myths. One of the advantages of using a formal drug and alcohol testing program, that incorporates Mediscreen’s screening system, is that the employer can rely on facts and not myths.


  1. Jenni Henderson, “Living with an ice addiction,” ABC News Australia, (15 July 2014), Retrieved at
  2. “Myths about substance use and employment,” Australian Government – Job Access, (5 July 2012), Retrieved at
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