UNDER PRESSURE: Workplace stress is reaching toxic levels in many industries. Picture: Supplied
Recently, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ran a two-part documentary exposing use of cocaine and other drugs in restaurants, referring to cocaine use as the trade’s “dirty little secret”. However, the food industry is not the only one with a problem, nor is it isolated to Europe or the Americas. In South Africa, we have many industries that are synonymous with frequent and regular use of mood and mind-altering substances, such as drugs and alcohol.

High substance abuse industries

It’s true that the hospitality industry, including restaurants, hotels and entertainment spots, shows a high prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse. Other industries which display a tendency towards substance abuse are creatives, the financial sector, including banks, insurance companies and investment houses, and call centres.

There is a strong link to substance abuse and the high stress levels that pervade these industries. A commonality between these industries is the level of always-on customer service required.

Employees are typically customer facing, and often on the receiving end of rudeness, dissatisfaction and complaints.

This creates an unpleasant environment in which employees just have to “take it” and placate customers who might be unreasonable. As such, they could be tempted to turn to mood-enhancing drugs which boost their confidence and help them cope.

Long hours are another contributor, as many employees in the hospitality and call centre industries work long, monotonous shifts, sometimes well into the early hours of the morning. To fight tiredness, substances such as methamphetamine (tik or khat), cocaine and energy drinks spiked with vodka are quite popular.

That’s not to say that all players in these industries should be tarred with the same brush - not all employees partake in drug and alcohol abuse, and not all businesses have this problem.

In fact, many businesses manage this problem through effective policy enforcement, frequent testing and adjusting the environment in which their employers are required to work.

The risk of substance abuse

Businesses that do not have a policy around drug and alcohol use and abuse in the workplace will find themselves at risk. The risks go beyond a workforce that is drunk or “high”. Alcohol and drugs impede judgement, which can lead to accidents. They can also affect mood swings, making a user overconfident, depressed, or over emotional. Mood swings can affect how they respond to customer queries or complaints, directly impacting the business’s reputation.

Further problems associated with drinking and drug use at the workplace include frequent absenteeism as employees’ health deteriorates due to drug or alcohol consumption; theft, as overconfidence coupled with lack of funds drives employees to steal from the business to fuel their habit; and a drop in the quality of their service delivery.

Managing the problem

Businesses need to create a solid, well-defined drug and alcohol policy, which details the acceptable parameters, the testing process, and consequences. Ideally, a business should adopt a zero alcohol and drug policy at their place of work, meaning that no employee may work while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Certain prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepine, have been known to be used recreationally as well, so organisations should enforce a policy which requires a doctor’s letter for use.

There are several tests available on the market which can be used to determine a person’s sobriety. These include breathalysers for alcohol testing and urine or saliva tests for drug testing.

Typically, businesses should use the six-panel drug tests which provide comprehensive testing for six different types of commonly used drugs: cocaine, THC (marijuana), opiate (heroin, nyaope), methamphetamine (tik or cat), amphetamines (speed), and benzodiazepine (tranquillisers or mood stabilisers).

Offering support

It is critical that there is a policy around consequences, yet it should cater for potential rehabilitation or support of the employee. However, this requires a level of trust between the employer and employee.

Where there has been a complete breakdown in trust - for example, when an employee commits one or more crimes such as theft while under the influence - dismissal is a common recourse.

Where an employee has been found intoxicated or “high”, but has not yet crossed any serious lines and is otherwise a great employee, it may be best to initiate a support programme.

The employee could benefit from rehabilitation, therapy or even a lighter, less stressful workload. In such instances, the employee is often able to perform better, especially knowing that they have the backing and support of their employer.

Employers need to be cognisant of the environment that they are creating for their employees, especially at peak periods. Often it is during peak periods that employees first start taking drugs, initially as a temporary method of coping.

Unfortunately, more often than not the employee becomes addicted and it becomes a long-term problem. An employer who takes accountability for the environment that they are creating is better able to identify and manage substance abuse, and take measures to correct it.

* Rhys Evans is director of ALCO-Safe.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus