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Drugs in the Workplace:
A Summary of Research and Survey Findings


A 1999 study reveals workers reporting current drug use were more likely to have worked for three or more employers, to have voluntarily left an employer in the past year, and skipped one or more days of work in the past month. In those occupations identified with the highest rates of drug information and policies in the workplace, employees reported significantly lower rates of current drug use and heavy drinking. Workplace safety is the most common reason given by employers for drug testing. In 1997, approximately 49% of workers reported having any type of drug testing program in their workplaces. In 1997, pre-hire screening was the most common type of testing reported by workers (39%), followed by reasonable suspicion testing (30%), post-accident (29%) and random testing (25%).1

Effects on the Workplace

Hangovers put sufferers at risk of cardiac, neurological and psychiatric problems and cost society about $148 billion a year, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers found personal and societal costs of moderate and even light drinking are significant, and that most alcohol-related problems in the workplace are caused by light and moderate drinkers. Researcher Dr. Jeffrey Weise stated: "In the medical community, we tend to focus on alcoholics, but that's a very small number of people, whereas being hungover is a common thing." Typically caused by having a half-dozen or fewer drinks at a sitting, hangovers cost employers in absenteeism and poor job performance. Hangover-related health problems include an elevated risk of heart attacks, reduced cognitive abilities, and a psychiatric disorder: Elpenor Syndrome, typified by irrational behavior.2

A study reporting on the secondhand effects of alcohol use, found 1 in 5 workers report being injured, having to cover for a co-worker, or needing to work harder due to other employees' drinking. Nearly one-third of workers who consider their jobs to be dangerous report experiencing "secondhand" alcohol effects; half of employees surveyed supported random alcohol testing during the workday; nearly three-fourths of employees in manufacturing or transportation jobs supported testing. Many companies do not have alcohol policies; those that do may not enforce them effectively. Nearly 60% of managers and supervisors say their companies are "tough" on illicit drugs but "soft" on alcohol; 80% say they have inadequate training in how to address employee performance problems. More managers (23%) and supervisors (11%) actually report drinking during the workday and at company functions than do other employees (8%), which may contribute to a corporate culture that encourages drinking.3

Alcohol-related job performance problems are caused not only by on-the-job drinking but also by heavy drinking outside of work. Researchers found a positive relationship between being "hungover" and feeling sick at work, sleeping on the job, and having problems with job tasks or co-workers. Among pilots whose performance was tested in flight simulators, researchers found evidence of impairment 14 hours after pilots reached blood alcohol concentrations of between 0.10 - 0.12 BAC, and significant impairment 8 hours after reaching a BAC of 0.10. In other studies, drinking at work, problem drinking, and frequency of getting "drunk" in the past 30 days are associated with frequency of absenteeism, arriving late to work or leaving early, doing poor work, doing less work, and arguing with co-workers.4

According to a 1998 poll, employers often encounter denial (75%) and anger (42%) when they approach workers about alcohol problems. However, mandatory referral to treatment and the risk of job loss are strong motivations for treatment compliance.5 A 1996 study found employees required to enter alcohol treatment programs perform as well in treatment as employees who voluntarily seek it. Drinking dropped 74% after 6 months of "coerced" treatment and 78% after 6 months of "self-referred".6

Drug Testing

A study of applicants for Postal Service employment reviewed pre-employment drug tests, attendance and work performance records. The analysis determined that applicants testing positive were 66% more likely to be absent and 77% more likely to be discharged within 3 years of hire than applicants testing negative for illicit drugs. Had the Postal Service screened out all postal service applicants with positive drug tests in 1987, this would have saved approximately $52 million by 1989.7

A 2-year study of railroad occupational accident investigations and analysis of post-accident tests revealed positive test findings were more common in fatal than non-fatal accidents. In approximately one-third of the accidents associated with positive drug test results, alcohol and/or drug use was determined to be related to accident causation.8

Employee Assistance Programs

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are company- or union-sponsored programs that serve the needs of employees/members and their families by identifying and addressing a broad spectrum of work-related or personal health, economic and social issues including substance misuse/abuse and mental health. The costs of assistance programs vary considerably. In 1995, the average annual cost of such services per eligible employee nationwide was estimated to be about $28.00 for inhouse programs and about $22.00 for outside programs. These costs compare favorably to the costs associated with recruitment and training replacements, estimated at about $50,000 for employers such as IBM.9

Employee assistance program enrollment has risen steadily over the past decade. In 1993, there were 27.2 million individuals enrolled in EAP programs by 2002 there were 80.2 million. The total EAP enrollment of 80.2 million represents a 194% increase since 1993.10


1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Worker Drug Use and Workplace Policies and Programs: Results from the 1994 and 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, September 1999.

2 University of California, Hangovers Should be Taken More Seriously, Study Urges, June 2000.

3 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Perspectives for Worksite Alcohol Strategies: Results from a Corporate Drinking Study, December 1998. As reported in Drug Strategies, Millennium Hangover: Keeping Score on Alcohol, 1999.

4 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Alert Number 44, July 1999.

5 Drug Strategies, Millennium Hangover: Keeping Score on Alcohol, 1999

6 Ibid.

7 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drugs in the Workplace: Research and Evaluation Data, 1989.

8 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drugs in the Workplace: Research and Evaluation Data, Volume II, 1990.

9 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Division of Workplace Programs Web Site.

10 Open Minds, Open Minds October 30, 2002 Press Release, October 2002.


Last Updated: March 12, 2004

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