Substance use as an employee response to the work environment

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  • Journal of Vocational Behavior 24, 84-93 (1984)

    Substance Use as an Employee Response to the Work Environment


    Southwest Educational Development Laboratory



    The University of Te.Kau at Austin

    A conceptual framework for the examination of alcohol and drug use as employee responses to work environments is proposed. Three sets of substance use an- tecedents are discussed. These are distancing forces, attractions, and constraints. Examples of these antecedents within the organizational setting are provided, and the dynamic interrelationships among them explored. Conditions for the use of different types of substances are also identified.

    The phenomenon of substance use (i.e., alcohol and drug use) has plagued managers for decades. Several traditional assumptions underlie this concern: that some employees habitually use these substances, that employees often bring substance use problems to work, and that managers must at least restrict these behaviors to nonwork settings. A complementary viewpoint has surfaced recently, viz., that the employment setting may trigger or exacerbate substance use. This paper elaborates on the latter position. A conceptual framework for understanding the organizational antecedents of substance use is presented, and an attempt made to identify conditions that stimulate or inhibit substance use.


    People use substances for many reasons. Some use alcohol as a social stimulant, others drink to handle family stress, and still others drink because it is socially expected. Drugs can also be used for many reasons.

    An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Academy of Management meeting in Detroit, 1980. We thank Ed Lawler and Brian Graham-Moore for their many comments on previous drafts. Requests for reprints should be sent to Dr. G. Douglas Jenkins, Jr., Department of Management, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712.


    OOOl-8791/84 $3.00 Copyright Q 1984 by Academic Press, Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.


    We concentrate on one group of reasons for substance use, viz., the onset or aggravation of substance use as a response to the work envi- ronment. This aspect of substance use has rarely been examined (Herold & Conlon, 1981). We also emphasize substance use as well as abuse. But nonwork-related substance use, e.g., ceremonial drinking, medicinal drug use, and preexisting addictions, are outside our purview. Substance use as a response to pressures and demands outside work is also not germane here. We have adopted this perspective for many reasons. Because the etiology of substance use is still unclear, an in-depth examination of one set of precursors is preferable to a superficial study of all precursors. Also, nonwork spheres of an employees life are rarely under organizational control; supervisors and managers have little power to remove nonwork antecedents of substance use. Furthermore, by focusing on use as well as abuse, we can begin to understand the entire range of the substance- taking phenomenon.

    Within our limited focus, substance use is conceptualized as an employee response to organizational conditions that are in some way noxious or aversive. In this, substance use is similar to other employee responses, e.g., absenteeism and turnover. But there are many factors that render substance use unique. Substance use can be viewed as a means for the employee to change his/her psychological condition, thereby coping with the pressures and demands of work. Absenteeism (and other such actions) are aimed at changing ones physical condition or behavior (Newman & Beehr, 1979).

    Substance use is hypothesized to result from a complex interplay among three forces, viz., distancing forces, attractions, and constraints. Distancing forces push the individual away from the organization, i.e., in the direction of substance use. Attractions and constraints draw the individual and the organization closer together, i.e., they restrict the probability of substance use. Attractions pull and constraints push the individual toward the organization. Employees are likely to use substances only when distancing forces are stronger than attractions, and few constraints are present. Our general conceptual framework is presented in Fig. 1, and each element is discussed below.


    Distancing forces are generalized forces to increase distance from the organization. We will not provide an exhaustive list of all potential sources of distancing forces, since many excellent reviews are already available. Rather, we will illustrate the kinds of organizational variables that might stimulate distancing forces.

    Distancing forces arise from perceived aversive organizational conditions. Empirical research on substance use has examined only a few of these systematically. Attention has been devoted most often to work role stress


    FIG. 1. Conceptual framework for the examination of substance use as a response to the work environment

    (Margolis, Kroes, & Quinn, 1974; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1979; Sadava, Thistle, & Forsyth, 1978; Trite & Roman, 1972, 1973). Work role stress has been associated with the use of both drugs (Cook, Walizer, & Mace, 1976; Jessor, Jessor, & Finney, 1973) and alcohol (Herold & Conlon, 1981; Sadava et al., 1978). There is reason for stress and substance use to be positively related. By definition, stress is aversive (Gupta & Beehr, 1979; Gupta & Jenkins, 1980). People generally avoid aversive or punishing situations. The presence of stressful (hence aversive) work environments is likely to motivate employees to avoid the environment physically or psychologically, hence the development of distancing forces.

    Occupational obsolescence can also arouse distancing forces. Trite and Belasco (1970) found this variable to be related to the incidence of alcoholism among engineers, and suggested that the relationship occurred because obsolete employees are usually not valued by the organization (Trite & Belasco, 1970; Trite & Roman, 1972; Work in America, 1973). Co-workers may also isolate the obsolete employee, aggravating the strength of the emergent distancing forces. Job characteristics bear some relationship to the incidence of substance use. Work in America (1973) found evidence of a relationship between boredom and alcohol con- sumption. Trite and Roman (1972) argued that newly created jobs, with their inherent ambiguity, are stressful, and thus increase substance use.


    An inverse association between the freedom to set work hours and the severity of substance use was also posited by Trite and Roman (1972).

    Although empirical research on the antecedents of distancing forces regarding substance use is fragmented, many distancing factors can be identified conceptually, including characteristics of supervisors, work groups, jobs, and the organization.

    Supervisors can create aversive work environments in many ways: by providing too much or too little structure, by ignoring employees needs, by being unfair, and so on. Many supervisory variables are related to employee responses (Fleishman & Harris, 1962; Sheridan & Vredenburgh, 1978). It seems reasonable that these variables stimulate distancing forces. The centrality of the work group in employees work lives has long been recognized. Work group characteristics that logically relate to the arousal of distancing forces include lack of group cohesiveness, physical and/or social isolation of group members and interpersonal conflict. The rela- tionship of substance use to some job characteristics was discussed earlier. Other characteristics, e.g., role conflict, role overload, inadequacy of resources, underuse of skills, can also affect the prevalence of distancing forces. Organizational characteristics are relevant here, too. These include characteristics of the organizational structure (size, shape, etc.), rigidity of organizational norms and policies, and the attitudes of top management.

    The presence of distancing forces from any of these sources may precipitate substance use or abuse.


    Various intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are valued by employees. Pay is a reward that most people seek (Lawler, 1981). Fringe benefits, job security, social support, etc., are examples of other extrinsic rewards. People want intrinsic rewards also. Challenging jobs, jobs high in autonomy, variety, impact, etc., are rewarding (Hackman 8z Lawler, 1971; Hackman & Oldham, 1980). These outcomes are attractions, factors that pull the employee toward the organization. They describe the rewards an employee seeks from work, and they represent the energy that keeps workers at work, both physically and psychologically.

    Satisfaction with the job may also be an attraction. Cook et al. (1976) compared military units with high and low reported levels of illicit drug use, and found significant differences in satisfaction and morale between the two. Mangione and Quinn (1975) detected a small but significant negative relationship between job satisfaction and drug use among a national sample of employed Americans. Hawthorne (1977-78) compared a sample of 41 identified Army drug abusers with 28 Army nondrug abusers, and found the former to be significantly more dissatisfied than the latter. Similar results have also been reported by Hardy and Cull (1971) and Schuckit and Gunderson (1974).


    These and other intrinsic and extrinsic rewards from organizational membership characterize the attractions of the work place.


    Unlike attractions, constraints are specific to substance use. The many possible constraints on alcohol/drug use can be subsumed under three headings: individual, organizational, and environmental constraints.

    (Z) Individual constraints. Figure 1 shows two types of individual con- straints, viz., personality characteristics and demographic/background characteristics. Several personality characteristics positively related to substance use have been identified. More relevant in the present context are personality characteristics inversely related to substance use, i.e., characteristics that inhibit the use of alcohol and drugs. Few studies have focused on these, but there is some suggestive evidence (e.g., Carmen, 1977; Colton, 1979). Taken together, these studies indicate that healthy personality structures constrain the use of substances. Many demographic/background variables have also been investigated in this context. Although factors such as age and education are sometimes related to substance use, the most germane studies are those of religious beliefs and moral values. Burkett (1977) found fairly strong negative relationships between religious participation and marijuana and alcohol use. Kilty (1978) reported that personal, though not social, normative beliefs are useful predictors of drinking behavior. Since most research on individual constraints has been conducted with student populations, however, its generalizability to organizational settings is unclear.

    (ZZ) Organizational constraints. Figure 1 indicates four general categories of organizational constraints, viz., characteristics of organizations, su- pervision, work groups, and the employees jobs.

    Among the organizational characteristics relevant here are organizational policies and procedures. Many companies have formalized policies for dealing with alcoholic employees (Steele, 1981). Rehabilitation is also seen by some as a precondition for retention of substance abusing em- ployees (Schneider, 1979). The control policies implemented by an or- ganization to address drug and alcohol use problems are expected to be significant constraints on these behaviors (Trite & Beyer, 1982). The stronger the sanctions, the less likely employees will be to use substances at work. Attitudes of unions are also relevant in this regard (Johnson, 1981). Larger organizations experience greater substance use than smaller organizations (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1979; Urban, 1972). Although it is difficult to posit a direct relationship between size and substance use, an indirect connection seems plausible. Trite and Roman (1972) argued that the greatest risk of controlled heavy drinkers developing alcohol dependence occurs in situations that place few structural restraints


    on heavy drinking. Organizations where people are psychologically isolated (i.e., larger organizations) may be less likely to constrain substance use.

    Supervisors also affect the extent to which substance use is a viable option on the premises, since they vary in their tolerance of substance use by subordinates. The importance of supervisors as constraints on job-related substance use has been recognized (Kurtz & Googins, 1979), but rarely investigated empirically. Exceptions are the works of Cook et al. (1976) and Parker and Brody (1981), who found some relationships between supervision and substance use.

    The employees interpersonal environment is a critical constraint on substance use. Work group norms determine the extent to which substance use is acceptable on the job (Roman, 1981). Members of the work group can also help to cover up for the deviant employee (Trite & Belasco, 1970; Trite & Roman, 1972).

    Characteristics of the employees job constrain substance use. Jobs that require high levels of concentration and coordination may preclude the use of alcohol and some substances, since such use can reduce muscular coordination. Likewise, jobs with high accident rates may con- strain substance use if serious injury is to be avoided. Jobs that have high visibility may be similarly constrained in that the symptoms of use are harder to disguise (Trite & Roman, 1972). Task interdependence and opportunities for mobility are also found to affect the probability of identifying substance use (Roman, 1981).

    (ZZZ) Environmental constraints. These constraints stem from extraor- ganizational factors, and characterize the larger sociocultural setting in which an employee functions. At least three kinds of environmental constraints, legal, cultural, and economic, are of interest.

    The purchase of many drugs is not legal throughout the United States. Also, the purchase of alcohol is illegal in some areas. The leniency of marijuana law enforcement is related to the prevalence of marijuana use (Johnson, Peterson, & Wells, 1977; Stuart, Guire, & Krell, 1976). Legal constraints influence substance use in at least two ways. The threat of incarceration and other repercussions may be a deterrent, and the prob- ability of social and legal censure is smaller when substance use is permitted than when it is prohibited. Cultural factors can also constrain substance use (Bacon, Barry, & Child, 1965). Different substances serve different functions in different societies. For example, drinking means relief from tension in certain societies but not in others (Jessor, Young, Young, & Tesi, 1970; Sadava et al., 1978). Economic variables constrain substance use; substances usually cost money. Financial resources, then, will de- termine, to some extent, the feasibility of substance use. Pearlin and Radabaugh (1976) noted that economic hardship, anxiety, and stress- induced drinking are interrelated. Similarly, Lau (1975) found that, at the sociological level, the price of alcohol was negatively related to its consumption.



    Substance use results from a dynamic interplay between the distancing forces, attractions, and constraints. When the total distancing forces outweigh the total attractions, employees are expected to attempt to distance themselves from work. The specific ways that distance is increased depend on the nature of the operative constraints. If substance use has relatively fewer constraints than other options (e.g., absenteeism), it will be used as the coping mechanism of choice. Through the use of substances, an employee can absent himself/herself psychologically from the nox- iousness of the work place without being physically absent. In this way, the individual can handle work-related pressures, increase his/her psy- chological distance from the work place, and still not incur the sanctions that many other forms of withdrawal can incur. This conceptualization of substance use fits within the framework proposed by Newman and Beehr (1979) for strategies for coping with job stress. In essence, the employee changes his/her psychological condition through substance use, and manifests covert withdrawal from the work environment.


    We have not discriminated among the use of different substances so far. The use of alcohol, illegal drugs, tranquilizers, amphetamines, and other substances has many similarities, particularly in terms of work antecedents. But there are also many differences.

    Some individuul constraints vary from one type of substance to another. Younger employees may be more likely to use illegal drugs. The acceptance of different religions/moral beliefs may also constrain the use of some substances (e.g., heroin) more strongly than others (e.g., wine).

    Organizational sanctions against the use of nonmedicinal drugs tend to be stronger than sanctions against the use of alcohol. Based on arbitration cases, Provost, Smolensky, Stephens, and Freedman (1979) found that alcoholism was generally treated as a disease, but drug use was considered evidence of moral turpitude. Furthermore, it is often easier to detect the influence of alcohol than many drugs. In addition to some obvious physical changes (such as reduced muscular coordination, slurred speech, reddened eyes), alcoholism has long-term behavioral correlates, including reduced productivity and poor judgment (Roberts, 1977). But the effects of some drugs are less obtrusive, and often less well known, so that employees get away with their use relatively easily. Organizational constraints also vary across organizational roles. An executive having a three- martini lunch may be rewarded for appropriate role behavior, whereas an assembly line employee who imbibes or uses drugs on the premises may be fired for misconduct.

    Environmentul constraints also vary across substances. Societal norms and pressures are not always identical. Convivial drinking is part of many


    organizational roles (Trite & Belasco, 1972), but only some subcultures encourage chronic drug use. These differences in the societal mores are reflected in the fact that the purchase and possession of alcohol is usually legal, but many drugs are either totally illegal or require a doctors prescription.

    Distinctions must also be made among various drugs. Some drugs can be purchased over the counter, others are prescribed; some drugs stimulate, others tranquilize; some drugs are legal, others are not. Variations in the nature of these constraints determine the specific substance an employee is most likely to use.


    Most research on the organizational antecedents of substance use is speculative. The framework proposed here can be instrumental in de- mystifying substance use as a response to the work environment. If we can identify the specific distancing, attracting, and constraining factors relevant to substance use and abuse, we will be well on our way to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the etiology of this phenomenon.

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