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In Workplace, Efforts to Nip Drug Abuse Pay Dividends

Drug abuse in the workplace has been cut in half over the past decade, an improvement corporate America has pursued to reduce a multibillion-dollar drag on the bottom line.

With the country's largest companies leading the way, businesses have tackled the problem of illicit drugs using a carrot-and-stick approach - offering programs to workers who need assistance and requiring drug testing.

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The news isn't all good: Alcohol abuse, for instance, has not dipped much among American workers. But the dramatic drop in illegal drug use among employees and the role businesses have played in that improvement indicate that workplace intervention is an effective tool in deterring substance abuse in the US.

To some antidrug advocates, American businesses could do even more. "The workplace has been underutilized in the nation's efforts to address alcohol and drug abuse," says John Fenton, director of the National Drugs Don't Work Partnership in Alexandria, Va. The group lobbies to get small companies to establish substance-abuse programs.

Employee alcoholism and drug abuse cost US companies more than $200 billion a year - a number equal to nearly 3 percent of the nation's economic output, according to a survey released earlier this year by the Conference Board, a business group in New York. Substance abuse is a cause of such problems as decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, rising health-care costs, and more on-the-job accidents.

To combat employee drug use, a large company typically might spend about $50,000 a year for drug testing and tens of thousands more for treatment and counseling programs.

Many, like Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., find the investment worthwhile. Since the high-tech giant spent $1 million to roll out its drug-testing program in 1990, drugs have been "a big nonissue," says spokeswoman Margot Brown. Motorola tests job applicants as well as its 75,000 US employees - from the chief executive officer to the factory worker.

The number of users of illicit drugs dropped from 16.5 percent of the work force in 1985 to 8.1 percent in 1993, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Corporations don't get all the credit for the improvement. Part is attributed to the simple fact that young people - those most likely to use drugs - make up a smaller percentage of employees than they did in the 1980s, when drug use peaked. Still, employer programs have helped, experts say.

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For Kathleen, who requested anonymity, a bout with substance abuse began in college, when she began drinking heavily. The pattern carried over to her sales job at a large Chicago bank, and eventually she started using drugs, too. Though able to make her quotas, Kathleen started coming to work late two or three times a month.

"I never reached my maximum potential," she says, conceding that she spent much of her energy trying to hide her addiction.

"If a company is really interested in developing its employees, it can't not do something [about alcohol] and drugs," Kathleen says. "It's like not talking about the elephant sitting on the kitchen table."

Kathleen's company recommended a drug-treatment program, where she spent almost a year in rehabilitation. Today she works at a bank in another state. She has been clean for five years.

Experts say the most successful drug and alcohol programs include a written company policy on substance abuse; an employee assistance program that provides training, counseling, and treatment services; a drug-testing program; and employee education and supervisor training. The largest corporations have made the most progress. Today, just about all Fortune 500 firms have employee assistance programs, experts say.

Since 1987, drug testing in major US companies has almost tripled, according to a study by the American Management Association in New York. Most of the boom occurred between 1988 and 1993, as federal regulations mandated testing in a growing number of professions. Today 98 percent of the biggest firms - the Fortune 200 - use drug testing to screen potential employees. Nearly one-third of all new US hires will be screened this year, the study found.

Still, recent studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that corporate America has a way to go to free workplaces from drug and alcohol abuse. Seven percent of workers were heavy alcohol users in 1993, little changed from 8.5 percent in 1985, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Six of 10 adults know someone who has gone to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to a new survey by the Hazelden Foundation, an addiction-recovery and education service in Center City, Minn., which polled 1,000 workers.

The study found that while a third of those questioned thought a co-worker's job performance was affected by drug or alcohol abuse, fewer than 1 in 5 had ever approached a supervisor or worker to discuss the situation.

Most workers and supervisors are afraid of being sued if they accuse someone wrongly, say employee counselors. But Kathleen also points to those who run the programs: "It takes a former alcoholic or drug addict to spot a problem," she says, not someone with a degree in behavioral science.

Some experts say employers can do more to deter drug use among employees. Many small and mid-sized companies - which employ 80 percent of private-sector workers - have yet to adopt drug policies and programs, they note.

Part of the problem, he says, is that these companies think it's too expensive to invest in such programs, despite what experts say is a high return for money spent. Many companies, however, still don't think they have a problem.

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