Making drug testing a mandatory process for all state government employees, from their recruitment to throughout their employment, was a welcome measure from the government of Punjab a few weeks back. However, the question worth asking is if, and when, other states, as well as private sector employers in rest of India, will pay attention to this hushed reality. Even though Punjab has often been singled out for rampant addiction, drug abuse is a national concern.
According to data released by our government to the Parliament a few years back, India has witnessed around 455% increase in drug hauls between 2011-13 and as per UN estimates, India has a whopping 10 million drug abusers. To provide a perspective on this number, India’s much-vaunted IT sector employs just 4 million, while the entire manufacturing sector employed just over 30 million people. A significantly large part of India’s drug abusers is young and thus make up a significant proportion of India’s working population.
For employers, the risk of hiring a person addicted to drugs or substance abuse manifests in many different ways. At the individual level, there is a significant loss of productivity due to chronic disengagement and absenteeism. Until they get their fix, drug abusers suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms like confusion, aggression, poor memory and poor decision-making; all of which are toxic for a workplace.
However, more insidious risk is of a single rotten apple affecting his or her peers. Recreational use of drugs is easily picked up by peers and the habit can quickly spread to other employees. Drug abusers are also prone to workplace violence. In 2017, it was estimated that drug abuse could have costed US businesses more than $140 billion dollars every year. Over 70% of US employers said that they had been affected in some way by employee misuse of legally prescribed medications, including opioids.
The awareness is spreading among Indian employers, though slowly. Many companies in the IT and BPO sectors have started to mandate drug abuse screening as part of background screening of all potential recruits. Our internal data shows that 1 out of 10 employers are now actively insisting on a drug abuse screening before they hire someone.
However, in order to be effective, drug abuse screening should be conducted not just for potential hires, but also among existing employees at regular intervals. A typical drug abuse test looks for traces of a set number of chemicals in urine, hair or bloodstream; and can be easily passed if a candidate is aware and expecting himself to be tested. A few days of abstinence will ensure that no traces can be found in case of urine test.
A system of randomized testing can thus prove to be far more effective. Moreover, as the number of employers asking for drug screening grows, it can potentially become a strong economic deterrent for India’s youth to stay off drugs.
What should a company do if an employee is found to be a drug abuser? There is no single or easy answer to this question; although many progressive companies in the west view these incidents as a special case and have formed a due policy and process to deal with it. Their goal is to treat the individual with empathy and provide necessary support including counseling or medical interventions; while taking care to protect the individual’s colleagues and peers. Many companies are also conducting awareness building workshops and offering psychotherapy at the workspace to counsel their young workforce to stay off drugs. When combined with mandatory drug abuse screening for all hires, such initiatives can go a long way in insulating the workplace from any harmful effects of drug abuse.