Northern Safety & Industrial

Fighting Substance Use, Mental Illness, Stress, and Fatigue at Work
Traditionally, worker impairment has been synonymous with drug and alcohol use on the job. However, mental distress and fatigue are just as important for employers to address. All kinds of worker impairment are serious problems and have grown exponentially worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statistics show unsettling numbers across the US. An estimated 75% of adults with a substance use disorder are in the workforce. 1 in 5 Americans reported a mental illness in 2018. Fatigued worker productivity costs employers about $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually. More than 72,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2019 and over 50,000 of those deaths involved opioids.

  • Substance use. There are a variety of symptoms to look out for if an employee is suspected of substance use on the job. Odors are typically very telling–scents like alcohol and marijuana are big indicators, but body odor and/or urine can also be a sign. Employees might be fidgety, twitchy, dizzy, argumentative, agitated, irritable, or drowsy. Employers may notice a flushed face, pallor, sweating, dilated or constricted pupils, watery and/or red eyes, and erratic or involuntary eye movements. Depending on the substance that was ingested, speech may be slurred or slowed, or oppositely rapid and scattered. Getting distracted mid-thought and/or unable to verbalize thoughts could also be warnings. 
  • Mental illness/distress. Because we spend so much time at work, it’s no wonder that our jobs can contribute to and/or worsen mental illness and distress. Excessive or insufficient work, lack of participation and control in the workplace, poor working conditions, and conflicting home and work demands are common sources of stress.
  • Fatigue. Oftentimes, people don’t take lack of sleep seriously and being over-worked and over-tired becomes the norm. However, a lack of sleep also means a lack of safety. You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued. Losing just two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of having three beers. Furthermore, chronic sleep-deprivation causes depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses, and fatigue is estimated to cost employers $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity. 

While these issues themselves might be very different from each other, the ways to help employees battle them and become happier and healthier at work are very similar.

  • Implementing a wellness program, employer training, employee testing, and openly letting employees know they work in a safe space and should feel comfortable about opening up and talking to their supervisors can help.
  • Another way to combat workplace impairment is to establish a policy that maintains safety and provides help in a professional and consistent manner. This could include a broad definition of workplace impairment, a statement of who is covered by the policy, and a statement of the employee’s rights to confidentiality. 
  • A program can be established for educating employees and supervisors on identifying impaired behavior and what steps need to be taken if impairment is suspected. Provisions can be made for assisting those with a substance dependence, any mental illnesses/distress, and/or fatigue.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have an effect on the mental health and well-being of employees far beyond the initial crisis. The National Safety Council (NSC) has listed helpful resources on how to promote mental health and wellness in the workplace.


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