Prescription drug misuse continues to take a foothold in Australian communities, so it’s to be expected this will overflow to workplaces. What does HR need to know about managing prescription drug issues at work?
“Talking to drug testing companies, the number of positive (workplace) drug tests for prescription drugs is on the rise,” says Natasha Jager, national manager of workplace services at the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), Australia. What’s more, “we know that more people are dying from prescription drug misuse than illegal drugs.”
So, what do HR professionals need to know to best manage issues of drug misuse by employees?
Who is most at risk of prescription drug abuse?
Generally, middle-aged and older workers are most susceptible to accidental and deliberate prescription drug misuse, Jager says, as they begin to take more drugs for medical conditions, aches and pains, insomnia and other reasons.
“They’re wanting a quick fix so they can get on with their busy lives – and because it’s legal and over-the-counter people think it’s harmless,” she says. “However we really need to appreciate the seriousness of prescription misuse and the effect it can have on your health – but also in the workplace.”
How should employers approach a drug policy?
Though most workplaces have contractual provisions about drugs and alcohol, there are some industries required by law to conduct drug testing, such as the aviation and transport industries, as well as large construction companies.
Organisations in other sectors can also implement drug testing, as long as the procedure aligns with Australian standards.
Beyond the law, organisations must ensure they have a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy, which states that the company reserves the right to conduct random alcohol and drug testing, as well as exactly how the employer may respond to a drug test that tests positive. “If it’s not in their policy, Fair Work Australia and the Industrial Relations Commission will come down heavily,” says Jager.
What should you do if you suspect an employee is abusing prescription drugs?
The question “what should I be looking for” is a common one – and Jager says it’s important to know how to approach the issue sensitively.
The best practice recommended by the ADF is to “see the person and not the drug” as this means you will not be looking at a particular drug – or approaching the situation with a bias, but simply looking for changes in behaviour.
“A lot of people get caught up in ‘are they addicted to cocaine or are they misusing valium?’ and want to know the actual specifics when they should be looking at the behaviour of the person.”
Instead, HR should recommend that colleagues (and should themselves) look at how the behaviour of a person differs from their normal behaviour; for example, turning up late for meetings, or returning late from lunch. Jager says that if people feel comfortable, engaging co-workers at a practical level can help start a non-confrontational conversation and raise awareness with the person.
Another issue to consider is the fact that many prescription drugs present in the same way as some illegal drugs in tests. For example, the drug Ritalin has the same classification as cocaine and ice. It’s why workplaces must also create an environment where employees can feel comfortable informing their employer that they are taking prescription drugs that may impact their performance and decision-making. Privacy is of the utmost importance here, says Jager. When an employee does disclose such information, they should not be obliged (in most cases) to say what drug they are taking, and this information should remain known only to HR.
“What I would recommend to employees is if the doctor says ‘this is serious stuff’, ask them to write a note that informs the employer that a drug test may come up positive or that their performance may be impacted.”
What else can HR do?
HR needs to include discussions about drugs – legal and illegal – when they communicate with employees about fitness for work, says Jager. This includes information about signs to look out for in their friends and co-workers – and where to get help if they need it.
Employers also need to make sure that their employees trust that if sensitive information is shared with HR and a manager, it won’t go any further than that.
And seeing as 35 per cent of people with a mental health condition also misuse drugs or alcohol, employers must ensure they foster a workplace culture that “empowers people to come forward.”
“We shouldn’t be thinking about them as separate issues. It really is the one issue.”