Alcohol, Drugs, Violence and Obesity in the Workplace
Of the primary management functions, the least favorite of more small employers than any other is personnel or human resources. One of the reasons for their aversion to the personnel function is that many people, employees, have personal social problems that spill-over into their jobs and affect work performance. The consequences of these spillovers typically place small employers in difficult positions for which most of them are ill-prepared to handle. Among the most damaging of these personal social problems are drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and increasingly obesity. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2002) reports that over 12 million illicit drug users are employed, as are 12 million heavy drinkers and 40 million binge drinkers. A substantial percentage fall into more than one category, so the numbers are not additive. Still, the number is large and the resulting problems disproportionately impact small employers. The reason for the relatively greater consequences is that younger people are considerably more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than are older people, and small businesses rely to much greater extent on young people for their employees than larger ones. Workplace acts of violence are much less frequent than drug- or alcohol-related incidents. Yet, when violence occurs, it can have severe repercussions. The same younger/older employee relationships appear with violence as with drug and alcohol abuse, again making smaller businesses particularly vulnerable. Obesity is somewhat different than the traditional personal social problems, but is drawing increased attention from public health officials and many employers. The National Institutes of Health reports almost two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight and nearly one-third are obese. The trend is alarming. Obesity rose from 13 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 2000 with most occurring in the last 20 years. The prevalence of these conditions among employees in small businesses and the magnitude of their consequences lead this issue of the National Small Business Poll to focus on personal social problems – Alcohol, Drugs, Violence, and Obesity - in the Workplace.
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Alcohol and Drugs in the Workplace
Forty-five (45) percent of small employers have a written policy regarding employee use of drugs and alcohol (Q#1). The larger the firm, the more likely the owner is to have such a policy. Almost 82 percent of firms employing 20 or more people have one compared to just 38 percent among those employing fewer than 10.
Though not necessarily written, over three in four have a drug and alcohol policy that they publicly maintain. Of those who do not have a written policy, 57 percent say that they verbally advise employees of their policy at the time of hire (Q#1a). Adding written policies and verbal advisories, 73 percent of the smallest and 92 percent of the largest have an articulated policy for their employees. The remainder appear to have no policy. Small employers without a policy are less concerned about alcohol and drug-related problems than those who have one.
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a. Screening for Alcohol and Drugs
The first step chronologically to determine potential employee problems with alcohol or drugs is to check for prior abuse before hiring. Just over one-third (35%) report that they typically check an employee’s background for drug and/or alcohol abuse (Q#2). This procedure is somewhat more likely to occur in firms with 20 or more employees. However, it is not clear that the primary reason owners of larger firms more frequently screen for alcohol and/or drugs is that they typically have a more formalized hiring process. They are more likely to check many more aspects of an applicant’s background, including alcohol and drugs than are owners of smaller businesses.
Once a potential employee’s background has been checked, the chance that he or she will undergo a drug (or breathalyzer) test is minimal. Just 8 percent of owners say that in the last three years they required one or more employees to take such a test (Q#3). Even among those employing more than 20 people, only 29 percent say that they compelled at least one employee to be tested.
The circumstance most likely to trigger alcohol and/or drug tests when they are given is a random check. Of those who test, 76 percent say that they test randomly (Q#4D). Seventy (70) percent indicate that they do so at the time of hiring (Q#4C). Half that number (35%) test when there is reasonable suspicion of use (Q#4B). Finally, 32 percent tested in the last three years following a serious work-related accident (Q#4A). The latter amounts to somewhat less than 1 percent of firms per year.
These circumstances tend to overlap, particularly initial testing and random screening. Small employers who use one are likely to use the other.
Most testing originates with an employer’s decision to conduct them. Fifty-seven (57) percent report that they typically conduct tests because they believe it is necessary or advisable to do so (Q#5). However, 28 percent say that the government forces them to conduct the tests. About 15 percent claim that insurers either directed them to test or offered financial incentives if they did so.
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b. Concern over Alcohol and Drugs
Comparatively few small-business owners are concerned over alcohol and/or drug abuse and its consequences for their businesses. Alcohol appears a marginally more frequent/larger issue than drugs. But the level of concern they express is difficult to interpret. What level of concern shows a generally positive situation and what level a fundamentally unhealthy situation?
Seven percent characterize their concern over alcohol abuse and its consequences in the business as “constant” (Q#6). Another 15 percent say that they are occasionally concerned. Twenty (20) percent claim it is an unusual concern while 58 percent say that they are never concerned. Collapsing the levels, 22 percent express concern while 78 percent do not.
Concern over drug use, including marijuana, and its consequences parallels concern over alcohol. Six percent say employee drug use is a constant concern and 11 percent say it is an occasional concern (Q#7). In contrast, 16 percent report it an unusual concern and 66 percent never a concern. The resulting balance is 17 percent concerned and 82 percent not.
Most have the same level of concern about one as the other. Seventy-seven (77) percent answered both questions identically. Less than 2 percent are constantly concerned about one, but never concerned about the other.
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c. Handling Alcohol/Drug Problems
Fourteen (14) percent of small employers (or a supervisor) have warned, counseled, disciplined or fired one or more employees for unauthorized use or abuse of alcohol and/or drugs over the last three years (Q#8). The proportion of firms affected rises as their size rises. Incidents occurred in 45 percent of firms employing 20 or more people compared to 8 percent among those employing fewer than 10. Since comparatively larger firms have more employees and hence more potential opportunities for such problems, the data are not surprising.
Forty (40) percent of the most recent incidents involved alcohol, 40 percent drugs, and 19 percent both alcohol and drugs (Q#8a). The employees in question had a mixed history of prior problems. The incident was the first time that the employer had to take up the situation with the employee in 40 percent of cases (Q#8b); it was the second time in 19 percent of cases. However, in 41 percent of cases, the incident marked the third (or more) time that the small employer felt obligated to address the problem with the employee in question.
The incidents typically result in the employee getting fired. The current disposition of the most recent incident shows that 58 percent of affected employees were discharged (Q#8c). Owners of the smallest firms were notably more likely to pursue this course, in all likelihood because they do not have the resources and/or options to undertake lesser penalties. The second most likely step is a simple warning with no further action, but it was the path in only 13 percent of incidents. About one in 10 provided counseling, and somewhat fewer disciplined or suspended the employee. These data are not totally satisfactory because they could not follow an employee’s history from the employee’s first incident (when involved in more than one). Still, they strongly suggest the distribution of likely outcomes.
The disposition of incidents is related to the number of times an employee has been involved in drug- or alcohol-related problems. The more often involved, the more likely they are to be fired. Still, almost half with a first-time offense are let go.
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Violence in small businesses is unusual. Small-business owners report that in the last three years just 2 percent have experienced one or more employees assaulted or physically accosted while on the job (Q#9). However, the figure rises to 7 percent among those with 20 or more employees. More employees in a firm mean a greater potential for multiple incidents. Therefore, measuring violence by the number of firms experiencing it as done here could unfairly minimize the problem. Further, the infrequency of phenomenon makes it difficult to provide good estimates given sampling error. Despite these data liabilities, there is little doubt that workplace violence represents isolated problems particularly compared to drug and alcohol abuse.
Less than 1 percent report that they experienced one or more of their employees assault or physically accost someone else while on the job (Q#10). The figure rises to 4 percent among the largest.
There were so few cases in the survey that it is not useful to report the circumstances of relevant incidents.
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Obesity, or excessively overweight, is not traditionally considered a business problem as alcohol, drugs, and violence are. But recent media exposure has drawn attention to obesity as a national health problem, and by implication a business problem. The business concern is not only that excess weight and weight-related problems are direct cost increases through relatively higher workers’ compensation and health insurance premiums and increased absenteeism, but also because of the reduced ability (in many cases) to perform job-related tasks involving physical exertion or stamina. Yet, it is not known whether small-business owners view obesity in the same light as health professionals and insurers.
Small-business owners believe that substantially excess weight, or obesity, among employees is a personal matter. The implication is that employers should disregard possible employee weight problems. Fifty-eight (58) percent of small employers adopt this view of obesity, 39 percentage points hold it strongly (Q#11). In contrast, 26 percent adopt the view that employee obesity is a business issue requiring the active involvement of employers. Nineteen (19) percentage points believe that strongly. Eleven (11) percent take a neutral view and 7 percent did not answer.
A potential adverse impact that employers might experience from excessively overweight employees is relatively more workers’ compensation and disability claims than employers with a workforce in better physical condition. Small employers report an average of 0.5 workers’ comp or disability claims per firm over the last three years (Q#12). However, they attribute only about 6 percent of those claims to substantially-overweight employees or weight-related conditions.
The cost of workers’ compensation insurance is a major business problem for most small-businessmen and women; so, is the cost of health insurance. Yet, relatively few small employers appear concerned that substantially excess weight and weight related health conditions among employees are driving up insurance costs. Just 7 percent say that they are very concerned about it and another 15 percent are somewhat concerned (Q#15). Fifty-nine (59) percent are not at all concerned. There are two possible reasons for this perspective. Either owners do not tie excess weight to adverse health and subsequently higher insurance premiums, or they do not believe their employees (or even a few of them) have excess weight problems.
One credible, outside influence that could alert small-business owners to the tie between employee weight and employer insurance costs is the insurance industry. Yet, the insurance industry seems nearly invisible on the issue. Just 5 percent of small employers indicate that an insurer has provided them with information about what they, as small-business owners, can do to help employees minimize weight problems (Q#16).
A second potential adverse effect of excess weight is an inability to continue performing all aspects of the job. However, small employers report that an average of only 0.2 employees per firm have had their job performance adversely affected by excess weight (Q#13). That amounts to just one employee in every five small businesses.
A related question involves changing job requirements or duties due to employee weight-related conditions. Yet, small-business owners say that such changes are not common. Only 3 percent have made such an adjustment, though almost one in 10 of those employing 20 or more have done so (Q#14). One explanation for that result is the decline in manual labor or physical exertion in the modern workforce. People do not have to be in the same physical condition to work today as they did years ago. Another explanation is that affected employees are not doing tasks requiring physical exertion or stamina as well, as often, or as quickly as in the past.
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Employee personal problems that spill over into the workplace are a distraction for small employers and keep owners from engaging in activities that advance the business. Still, employee personal problems are a fact of modern life and are a part of managing any firm. Careful screening prior to hiring may reduce their incidence, but at some point every small-business owner will encounter them. The focus of employee personal problems here has been on alcohol, drugs, violence and obesity. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones employees bring to the workplace. But they are the high profile problems and ones that cause serious disruptions to many small firms.
A positive aspect of this report’s data is that most employers do not encounter alcohol, drug, and/or violence problems in their workplaces, at least not regularly. Fourteen (14) percent indicate that they faced at least one incident in the last three years. That averages 5 percent of firms per year or about one in 20. The figure rises to 45 percent over three years among those employing 20 or more people. Still, that is an average of 15 percent in larger small businesses per year. The good news is buttressed by the relative lack of concern over the problem and the perceived lack of need to test for drugs and alcohol. The negative aspect is the potential of multiple problem employees in the same firm with drug and alcohol difficulties. That is likely to occur, particularly in larger small businesses, though the survey did not collect data on the matter. The second negative aspect is that few small employers are in a position to offer multiple chances for those with problems or to find mid-steps between warnings and termination.
Violence in small businesses is rare, though its extent could be concealed to some degree by examining firms – many of which have few employees – rather than employees. Further, sampling error could have resulted in higher (or lower) true numbers than the figures obtained. Still, small employers report an average one or more incidents in fewer than one per 100 firms annually.
The lack of concern over employee obesity is consistent with the modest concern exhibited for other employee personal problems. The difference between it and the alcohol, drugs, and violence problems discussed is that the incidence of obesity is substantially higher than illicit drug use, violence, and heavy drinking (though not binge drinking). Therefore, obesity is almost certainly a more common condition in workplaces than the other problems examined here. The question is whether small employers tie obesity to adverse business consequences. The answer is that they appear not to associate them as comparatively few believe obesity is driving up insurance costs, a problem that is currently their most critical. The reasons for their failure to associate the two are not necessarily obvious. One likely reason is that the adverse consequences arising from obesity are more likely to develop over much longer periods of time than an act of violence, for example, and their costs will be less apparent. A second is that little public attention has been focused on the issue until recently, particularly compared to other personal problems discussed here. Whether increased attention will change the collective mind of small employers about obesity merits watching.
Small-business owners would like nothing better than to just see these problems go away and get on with the activities for which they went into business in the first place. Unfortunately, that is not possible. Dealing with employee social problems is as much an activity that must be addressed as the more pleasant aspects of business ownership.