Though each person who uses drugs and alcohol will exhibit a unique set of symptoms, common patterns of behaviour and drug use have been identified. Ranging from no substance use to dependency, each person fits somewhere on a continuum of behaviours and effects. People moving from left to right on the continuum reach points along the way where their behaviours and emotional states indicate that a new level of drug or alcohol (or both) influence on the body and mind has been reached. However, a worker may progress slowly and experience each stage or progress so rapidly that early stages are skipped. For example, a drug abuser may go from no drug use to using drugs on a regular basis and skip the stage where drugs are only used socially. The key point for employers is that random drug and alcohol tests can interrupt a pattern at any point, leading to the worker getting professional help.
There are points used to measure the status of someone’s substance use. The first point is called “no use.” People who do not use drugs are making a choice to not do so. The reason may have something to do with personal values or previous use of drugs. At the experimental stage, someone tries using drugs mostly out of curiosity or because of peer pressure. Though teenagers come to mind first, there are thousands of adults who use drugs the first time at office parties or during work lunch breaks. Situational use is when drugs are used as a coping mechanism. Recreational substance use refers to using substances just for enjoyment or to enhance socialising. For example, people use drugs in difficult circumstances like working as a miner or construction worker in a remote location. At this point on the continuum there is low tolerance for substances.1
Continuing Down the Wrong Path
At the next stage, drugs and alcohol are misused, even though the person can still control their behaviours and can choose to not use substances unless the circumstances are right or doing so. However, a pattern of use is emerging and the worker may begin to drink every day at the pub after work or use illicit drugs every weekend. Bingeing may start. At this stage, the person may begin coming in late every Monday or begin showing up for work with a hangover or unprepared. Because there is still awareness of how the substance misuse is impacting life activities, it is possible the person will impose rules like limiting the number of drinks at the pub or only using drugs on Friday and Saturday nights. Tolerance for the substances is increasing.
Continuing along the continuum, the misuse of substances becomes compulsive behaviour or dependent use. More of the drugs or alcohol is used more regularly and control is mostly lost. The worker will begin to rationalise the drug use, develop a high tolerance for the substances, and begin to experience major life problems like financial or relationship problems. Employees testing positive on a drug test or failing a breath test after blowing into equipment like the Lion SD 500 will attempt to rationalise the results to the employer by saying things like, “The job stress was making it difficult to meet your deadlines, and I needed more energy if you wanted the job done right.” Employers who begin finding drug paraphernalia like needles, or supplies converted to another use, may be seeing the signs of a compulsive user. There may even be some drugs or alcohol hidden on the premises.
The last stage is dependency in which the drugs or alcohol take over a person’s life. There are no longer patterns of use because the person has lost control and is working to stay “high.” There have been physical and psychological changes induced by the chemicals. There is psychological pain emanating from feelings of hopelessness and loss of control. Tolerance for the substances is high, and the person is usually thinking about how to maintain a supply. Relationships of any kind become very difficult, unless they are with other chemical dependents.
At this stage, a worker needs the drugs or alcohol to feel normal because normal has been redefined. Addicts are so focused on their habits and so physically, emotionally and mentally devastated that they make mistakes like getting careless about hiding their addiction and begin to avoid people. Co-workers are probably whispering about the “change” in a once-friendly employee or how so-and-so was popping pills in the bathroom. Usually, addicts are identified long before this stage in workplaces with drug and alcohol testing programs.
Do No Harm
Australia’s adoption of a harm minimisation approach to drug and alcohol abuse is based on the principles of reducing personal harms and achieving reductions in demand and supply of substances. To implement such a broad strategy, intervention types have been identified as necessary to achieve success. In addressing alcohol abuse harms, the expected interventions are found, like primary health care settings, alcohol problem treatment, and mandatory treatment of repeat drunk drivers. However, also on the list are workplace interventions and mutual/self-help attendance at counselling programs. The substance abuse harm reduction interventions include a set of policies, programs and practices designed to reduce harms associated with addiction, like education of drug harms and early intervention to prevent further substance abuse through counselling and diversion services and treatment programs.2
Employers play an important role in the national effort by implementing random drug and alcohol testing programs. The reality is that the work of harm minimisation cannot start until substance abusers and addicts are identified. Since 80 percent of drug and alcohol users are employed, the task of identification can begin in the workplace. The sooner there is identification of a worker using drugs or alcohol in the workplace, the sooner the worker can reverse the path along the continuum.
It is tempting to consider the individual workplace drug and alcohol policy and testing program as operating in a kind of vacuum. However, each employer program is a component of a larger national system working to reduce the terrible toll that alcoholism and drug addiction take on individuals and society in general. The ultimate purpose of alcohol and drug testing is to help people deal with their substance issues, whilst preserving the health and safety of the employee and co-workers. When a worker tests positive for drugs and alcohol, the employer is then in the ideal position to inform the person of the availability of professional help, like counselling or treatment programs or EAPs.
CMM Technology (cmm.com.au) offers a variety of high quality drug and alcohol testing supplies and a wide choice of testing equipment. Implementing a testing program is not enough. It is critically important for substance testing to produce accurate results at all times to preserve program integrity.
- Types of drug use. (2011). Australian Drug Foundation. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1dMVdJV.
- AIHW. (2011, January). Review of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services – National Minimum Data Set (Drug Treatment Series Number 11). Retrieved from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, pp. 22-23,