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Substance Abuse Prevention for Students Entering the Workforce: A Guide for Employees and Employers

The sunset casts a silhouette of a college student wearing a cap and gown, raising their diploma into the air.

While substance abuse relating to binge drinking and opioid use has dropped among college students, near-daily use of marijuana and nicotine vaping apparatuses has significantly increased. It remains important to understand factors that contribute to substance abuse among college students, and to promote healthy behaviors. This demographic is at high-risk due to a combination of factors, including typical age, social influences, and stressors. 

Additionally, younger college students may not yet have developed healthy coping mechanisms or be knowledgeable about the resources available to them. It is very important that college students improve their behaviors and broaden their understanding of resources before they join the workforce, for the sake of their wellbeing, as well as for the sake of business operations, and the health of communities as a whole. 

This guide will detail the landscape of drug abuse from college and beyond. It will provide insights for students, friends, family, educators, and prospective employers to promote productive support for individuals who may be struggling with substance abuse as they prepare for and enter the workforce. 

Substance Abuse Trends Among College Students

Recent statistical trends relating to the abuse of various substances among college include:

Common contributing factors for substance abuse among college students include:

  • Stress related to school;
  • Performance enhancement;
  • Peer pressure;
  • Party culture;
  • Ongoing development of behavior;
  • Striving for independence;
  • Experience exploration. 

Most Common Substances Abused on Campus

Some of the most common substances abused on campuses include:

  • Nicotine;
  • Alcohol;
  • Marijuana;
  • Ecstasy;
  • Cocaine;
  • Prescription stimulants;
  • Prescription sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics;
  • Prescription pain relievers.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Students

Common warning signs of substance abuse or dependence in college students include:

  • Tardiness and/or skipping of classes;
  • Daytime sleepiness;
  • Poor focus;
  • Binging behaviors;
  • Frequent blackouts;
  • Engaging in risky behaviors;
  • Concern from acquaintances and/or loved ones;
  • Mood swings;
  • Significant weight loss or gain;
  • Frequent illness;
  • Feeling the need to make excuses for the behavior;
  • Scheduling around parties or other opportunities to engage in substance abuse.

Effects of College Substance Abuse on Entering the Workforce and Employment

Substance abuse and dependency in college can have lasting impacts on career development, whether the individual continues the behavior or not. Issues that they may face include:

  • A longer period of time in college;
  • Lower grades;
  • Less time to explore career development opportunities;
  • The development of unhealthy coping mechanisms;
  • Increased risk of mental health issues;
  • Increased risk for physical issues;
  • Continued addiction or addictive behaviors.

While some individuals may naturally “mature out” of these behaviors over time, others may have more difficulty overcoming them. The latter outcome may be more likely in people who are dealing with other significant personal obstacles or sources of stress in their lives. As such, it is important that individuals who are experiencing any inordinate levels of drug usage during college make a conscious effort to build better habits well before they enter the workforce. Continued substance abuse or other poor coping mechanisms could heavily impact your ability to hold a job, or even to get one in the first place, as many employers require background checks and drug testing as part of the hiring process. 

According to a 2016 study, positive urine drug screens for that year were the highest since 2004, with a 4.2% failure rate. While not all jobs require drug screening, it could considerably reduce your job opportunities if you need to avoid those that do. It is also not a good idea to put your faith in scams that claim they can help you to pass a drug test regardless of your usage. There is little to no available data about how common it is for prospective employees to fail a background screening. However, it is important to know what information can show up on background checks. This information may include:

  • Misdemeanor criminal convictions;
  • Felony criminal convictions;
  • Pending criminal cases;
  • Instances of incarceration.

Arrests that did not result in a conviction may appear on the background check depending on the specific screening process, but should not if the arrest was expunged from your record. Juvenile detentions or convictions do not usually appear on the background check if the records were sealed, and in some states, criminal convictions should no longer appear on your background check after a set time. 

Alcohol and Drug Use in the Workplace

Some estimates state that substance abuse may cost companies up to $81 billion annually. This cost results from factors such as loss of productivity and healthcare needs. As mentioned, some young substance abusers may “mature out” of their damaging behaviors, but others may find that the behaviors worsen when faced with the stresses of the workplace. On the employee’s part, substance abuse or dependence may lead to various work-related problems, job loss, and/or compounding economic, physical, and emotional issues. 

These concerns may be especially likely if they haven’t properly developed healthy coping methods for stress or other important self-management behaviors. With this in mind, it is important to understand that employees may have lost access to helpful substance abuse resources that they may have been able to leverage on their college campus. As such, it is vital that employers offer confidential, easily accessible, robust resources for employees’ mental and physical health. 

Warning Signs and Effects of Workplace Drug Abuse and Addiction

While it may be tempting to think that substance abuse or dependence in an employee may be obvious, many individuals that suffer from these obstacles are “high-functioning,” which means that they are still capable of carrying out daily tasks with some degree of success. However, the mental and physical toll of the abuse inevitably does result in some sort of negative impact on their performance or engagement at work. Signs that an employee is struggling with substance abuse or dependency include:

  • Absenteeism or excessive time off;
  • Disorientation;
  • A decline in personal appearance;
  • Loss of productivity;
  • Withdrawal affecting performance;
  • Inability to focus;
  • Risk-taking behaviors;
  • Fatigue;
  • Irritability;
  • Frequent excuses. 

Drug Abuse Help, Support, and Resources

There are many resources available for those struggling with drug abuse during college or their early career, as well as those who want to provide positive support for those individuals. These resources include but are not limited to financial, mental, emotional, and physical support. They also may be specific to an organization or locality, or may be statewide, national, or international. Individuals dealing with substance abuse or dependency will often need significant support from a variety of sources, including their family, friends, community, and workplace. A supportive work environment can improve not only their business operations, but also the lives of individuals and their community by providing access to options for the healing and recovery of their employees. 

For College Students

Resources for college students struggling with substance abuse include:

  • Association of Recovery in Higher Education: This is a search tool for collegiate recovery programs. 
  • Sober Nation: This resource offers general information about substance abuse in college, as well as information about recovery programs for this demographic.
  • Sober Living: This page explains the value of choosing a college that supports your sobriety goals, and lists colleges that are well-suited to supporting sobriety goals. 
  • The Gordie Center: This article explains what medical amnesty and good samaritan policies are on college campuses. 
  • College Express: This article explores sober housing options in college, and lists colleges that offer sober housing resources. 

In the Workforce

Employers and employees share the responsibility of preventing and addressing substance abuse among workers. Most notably, employers need to offer substantial opportunities for assistance, and employees need to ensure that they utilize these opportunities when needed. 

The first step for managing and addressing substance abuse in the workplace is the recognition of signs of abuse, as listed above. The second step is to develop clear, comprehensive substance abuse policies, and to communicate them clearly to employees. These policies should ideally incorporate the following elements:

  • Channels for communication;
  • Access to informational resources;
  • Access to assistive resources;
  • Privacy options;
  • Employee training about signs of substance abuse;
  • Employee training about expectations for employees struggling with substance abuse;
  • Employee training about drug screening, as needed;
  • Access to drug screening resources for HR;
  • A specific drug screening policy.  

The following are resources that employees and employers may use to support recovery from substance abuse and addiction:

Additional Drug and Substance Abuse Resources

General substance abuse resources include: