It is natural for employers to think of illicit drug users as mostly young adults who fall prey to peer pressure or just get caught up in the party scene. However, it is time to think differently as the Australian population ages and studies indicate that a growing number of people continue their drug use through the decades. In some cases the middle aged substance abusers may cut back on the frequency of drug use, but even that is not always true. The implication for Australian employers is that random workforce drug and alcohol testing programs need to continue no matter how high the average population age rises.
According to the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, the labour force participation for the age groups 45-54 and 55-59 is increasing as public policy and economic conditions encourage people to continue employment for a longer period of time. In fact, between 1996 and 2006, the participation rate rose by 6.2 percent to 71.6 percent. As of October 2006, 47 percent of the working population was over 45 years old, representing an increase of 3 percent. These trends will not only continue but are expected to continue at an increasing rate.1 In these statistics is buried an interesting fact. One of the side effects of improved drug treatments and harm minimisation programs is the fact that lifelong drug users have an increased life expectancy.
Ageing Opioid Users in the Workplace
Recent studies are reporting some surprising results. A study of people over 40 years old, conducted by the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, is important in several respects. For employers, the key finding is that it documents a growing number of ageing injecting opioid users. One of those reasons is baby boomers who began injecting during the 1970s and 1980 now comrpise the mature population, and some have not aged out of drug use. Whilst it was generally believed that mature workers would leave illicit drug use behind, it seems that some have continued using drugs and are living to an older age. The report is only able to extrapolate the number of older Australian opioid users, but the figures indicate the extent of the problem. As many as 45,600 to 79,800 over-40 years old are non-dependentt opioid users and 12,854 to 30,721 are dependent.2
The opioid injectors who were interviewed or who agreed to complete an online questionnaire reported a number of key issues. As would be expected, they included health, family and financial matters. However, they also expressed employment concerns. Almost all of the people interviewed or surveyed were employed at the time. The employed opioid users said their working lives would be improved if they had better treatment access and a way to balance a pharmacotherapy program (like easier access to methadone clinics) with employment.
Also of interest to employers is the fact that the mature opioid users admitted they went to great lengths to hide their drug use from employers. In fact, some of the older users would refuse treatment or fail to tell their health professional about the opioid use for fear of losing their jobs or of being able to find a decent job. They also admitted that their drug use impeded their chances of advancement.3
Employers must be diligent in developing and administering a random drug testing program that includes people of all ages. Since so many studies on drug and alcohol abuse address young adults, it is easy to get lulled into believing mature workers have put drug abuse in their past. Unfortunately, a mature age is no guarantee a person behaves in a mature manner.
Based on professional studies, random drug and alcohol testing programs should be truly random and not exclude any worker age group. Employers can rely on CMM Technology (http://cmm.com.au/) for all drug testing technology and equipment needs for saliva, urine and breath testing.
1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2007, November). Older Australia at a glance. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing: http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=6442454209
2 AIVL. (2011, July). Double Jeopardy – Older Injecting Opioid Users in Australia. Retrieved from Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL): http://aivl.org.au/database/sites/default/files/resources/AIVL-Double-Jeopardy-WEBversion.pdf