It is crucial to identify those at risk and in need of help.

When the demographics of alcoholism and drug abuse are explored, it may be surprising to learn that the restaurant industry has a major claim on these occupational problems. This may strike most as surprising, because the typical assumptions usually center around the construction industry, where physical wear-and-tear on the body and seeking relief for it makes drug use and alcohol become an unauthorized, off-the-record part of the job.

While manual labor is no stranger to substance abuse due to its coming in first for opioid abuse, the facts are that restaurant workers have the highest incidence of alcoholism and the third-highest drug abuse rate among all professions. These problems span the gamut of employment, from dishwashers to chefs. Some studies, such as a report from the Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Disorder, reverse these, but in the general landscape of healthcare this is irrelevant because, when vying for which profession is actually on top for which dangerous thing, the top of this list is no honor.

Why is the Restaurant Industry Such a Substance Abuse Magnet?

There are many reasons workers in this industry are at high risk for such abuse:

The restaurant industry is centered on entertainment via consumption (dining and drinking), which means alcohol is a fundamental ingredient. Most restaurants have bars associated with them, and many bars have food preparation associated with them. Either way, alcohol flows freely and the risk for alcoholism is the natural result. With a sizeable portion of the general population having a genetic pre-disposition to addiction, the sheer traffic of people, i.e., more volume, means more substance abuse.

Restaurant workers keep late hours, a time which traditionally has more drinking and socializing, along with the downside of such late-night traffic, i.e., more alcohol and the use of drugs.

Restaurant workers, like those in construction, are often transient, have little job security, have less education, are not on a long-term life goal track. Many, living paycheck-to-paycheck, suffer hopelessness for their futures, which results in depression, another risk factor for substance abuse. This outcome compounds the issue in what are called co-occurring disorders which requires a higher level of treatment.

What are the Consequences of Substance Abuse in the Restaurant Industry?

Any alteration away from peak functioning becomes especially problematic in any industry that involves machinery, heat sources, or cutlery, (not to mention, balancing heavily laden trays of food, drinks, and dishes while moving back and forth between the kitchen to the customer).  OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, labels accidents on the job as “incidents,” and there has been an entire protocol for drug screening (including alcohol) developed as “post-incident screening.” In the past, workers resisted such investigating into their personal lives because they feared retaliation (dismissal, demotion, or notification of law enforcement) for positive results from such screens. Employers also resisted “post-incident” screening to avoid the costs in time and money in training new employees. These reasons have been found counterproductive to work safety and in 2018 OSHA officially changed its stance on post-incident screening to one that seeks to improve work conditions for the employee and the employer, instead of as a method of discipline.

What Can Be Done to Curb This Risk?

A non-judgmental appraisal of restaurant industry employees can identify those at risk such that work flow doesn’t suffer and functional employment can be maintained. This is not only helpful to the individual at risk, but profitable for the industry in that it reduces turnover. In industries which suffer a large volume of abuse-related turnover, it’s a win-win solution.

The SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions, funded jointly by the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), has several screening tools available for any type of substance abuse disorder or mental health problem.

As stated above, OSHA has recently clarified its stance on drug testing, specifically, from a procedure for retaliation to one of “promoting workplace safety and health.”

A Win-Win Course Goes Down Easier

It is crucial (as well as prudent employer administration) to identify those at risk and take an attitude that—even after “incidents” in the workplace—the employee’s responsibilities and employment are salvageable. Referral to treatment centers can usually be accomplished without the loss of work (employment) or even any work hours, which is crucial to those in the lower economic tiers. Treatment for alcohol abuse, substance abuse (including opioids, stimulants, “benzos,” that is, Valium, Xanax, etc.), and even smoking are readily available.

When one considers the investment in training a new employee, the value of an experienced employee, and the downside of losing an employee, which combines both losses, any investments into treatment become cost effective. This sensibility and wisdom of an employer is a prudent strategy that always pays off when the bottom line is tallied. Check, please.

Dr. Gerard M. DiLeo is a medical doctor, and Certified Life Care Planner. Dr.DiLeo is also a published health author for McGraw-Hill, as well as has contributed health articles to newspapers and regional magazines for over 30 years. He was in private practice in the New Orleans area during these years, serving as Chief-of-Staff at a regional hospital twice.

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