A Growing Problem: Prescription Drug Abuse in the Workplace

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Nearly every employer drug tests for illegal drugs. However, if an employee has a prescription for a drug, they will still pass the drug test. With this loophole, prescription drug abuse in the workplace is on the rise.

The problem tends to start on college campuses, where students seek out medications either for recreational use or to keep up with the hectic pace and multiple demands of college life. Once a habit is formed, it easily translates to the workplace. Adderall is the new coffee (from 2002 to 2005, there was a 90% increase in American adults taking ADHD medication); Vicodin the new Tylenol (prescription drug abuse of opiates has increased 40% since 2005). Rather than have a drink (or better yet, go for a run), more and more workers turn to anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Valium. Some even tempt fate by mixing these drugs together, causing potentially dangerous or even deadly interactions. Not to mention, prescription drugs have rapid tolerance, and workers soon need more to produce the original effect.

In a society that pushes workers to do more with less, work longer hours and keep up in a fast paced world, many turn to these drugs as a way to cope.  In 2008, a study suggested that a greater percentage of workers test positive for prescription drugs than cocaine and methamphetamines combined. To make matters worse, many are not even taking their own prescriptions: According to Glamour magazine, “nearly 30 percent of young women say they’ve borrowed prescription drugs from a friend.” Due to the different reactions the same drug can invoke in different individuals, this is even more dangerous.

What does this mean for employers?

For employers who have workers in safety sensitive functions, such as production lines or driving positions, it could pose a greater risk of injuries and skyrocketing worker’s compensation costs. For those in customer facing roles, it could damage a company’s reputation if an employee does not use proper judgment due to the influence of prescription drugs.  In 2008, 32% of workers felt that a co-worker’s use of drugs or alcohol had a negative impact on their job. Yet, even in safety sensitive functions such as driving or radioactive testing, the federal government mandates drug testing for only six classes of drugs – not including painkillers such as OxyContin or anti-anxiety drugs like Klonopin (certain state laws may be stricter).

This is a delicate topic in the workplace. For those who use their own prescriptions as intended, there may be no negative side effects, and the quality of life may improve.  Challenging this issue could pose a risk under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and could be unfair to those who use the drugs as intended.  However, those who abuse prescription drugs undeniably pose a risk.

How do you think employers should deal with this issue in the future? Where do we draw the line between employee privacy and workplace safety?

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