Are Mind-Altering Substances Hurting Your Employees' Productivity? Here's What the Science Says.

The work-related effects of mind-altering substances.

learn more about Joel B. Carnevale

By Joel B. Carnevale

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter the organizational environment and blur the boundaries between work and life, many individuals have sought opportunities to disconnect and alleviate stress. In an attempt to find a source of therapeutic relief, some have turned to exercising, crafting, and even baking. Others, however, have resorted to alternative ways of coping, choosing not to bake, but to get baked.

Recent research suggests that since the start of the pandemic, substance use has been on the rise. One study conducted during the pandemic found that 1 in 4 American respondents reported using drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety and stress. Likewise, in a survey of adults living in the U.K., nearly half (48%) indicated that they have consumed more alcohol, while 44% of cannabis users reported that they had consumed more of the drug, since the start of the pandemic. For organizations, these statistics are likely a cause for concern given the increasing difficulty in monitoring and controlling employees who are working remotely.

Related: Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll in the Time of Coronavirus

Even before the pandemic, concerns about the use of substances on the job have grown as an increasing number of states have decriminalized and even legalized the possession and use of mind-altering substances. For instance, over the past decade, the number of states legalizing marijuana has grown considerably, with currently 1 in 3 Americans living in a state that has legalized cannabis for recreational purposes. Last year, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. Most recently, Oregon has become the first state to decriminalize the use of "hard' drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

As the evidence below illustrates, managers and employees alike have a vested interest in understanding the implications mind-altering substances can have on work-related outcomes. While there are some exceptions, the general consensus is that substance use can be harmful to employees' career potential and work productivity.

"Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

Contrary to what "Jeff Lebowski" might say, research shows that frequent and heavy use of mind-altering substances can have destructive work-related effects, both prior to and during employment. For example, research suggests that, because binge drinking can interfere with academic responsibilities and the job search process, frequent alcohol consumption in college can diminish students' ability to gain employment after graduation. Once employed, frequent heavy episodic drinking is associated with increased absenteeism and decreased performance. Likewise, the use of illicit substances (e.g., cocaine, amphetamines) can lead to poor work adjustment, decreased productivity, and increased likelihood of workplace injuries.

Delving into the weeds

Okay, so, the general consensus seems to be that getting bombed on a regular basis can be detrimental to your career and work productivity. Not too surprising. But are there be exceptions?


Some researchers question whether cannabis use would incur the same negative work-related effects as other substances. Questions surrounding the implications of marijuana in the workplace have increased over the years as acceptance of cannabis for recreational and medical use has grown. In favor of the idea that cannabis might not be as harmful to employee productivity as other mind-altering substances, studies show that the effects of cannabis tend to dissipate more quickly and incur fewer side-effects relative to other substances.

Related: A Favorite Employee Tests Positive for Drugs. Now What?

Does this mean cannabis users need only worry about eating too many snacks on their lunch break? Not quite. Like many other mind-altering substances, cannabis use causes immediate physiological and psychological effects that can hinder one's ability to perform well on the job. Cannabis use temporarily impairs emotional regulation and functioning of higher-order cognitive processes such as working memory, self-control, and planning. It can also impair motor functioning, leading to decreased reaction times and perceptual-motor coordination. For these reasons, research has generally suggested that frequent cannabis use leads to decreased productivity and difficulty adjusting to the work environment.

Might it be not a matter of "if', but "when'?

Given that the mind-altering properties of cannabis tend to be relatively mild and ephemeral, recent research suggests that whether its consumption creates problems at work may be a matter of timing. One recent study, in particular, looked at the effects of cannabis use before, during, and after work on a range of employee work behaviors. The findings suggest employees who use cannabis before and during work hours tend to be less responsive to the needs of others, engage in more counterproductive work behavior, and generally underperform on their work assignments. After-work use of cannabis, however, had no effect on employees' performance or behavior on the job.

Obviously, this doesn't mean you should go light up after clocking out of work. Many companies continue to have zero-tolerance policies for drug use and the long-term effects of chronic marijuana use are still unclear. But it does mean that, unlike other substances that have clear detrimental work-related consequences, the effects of cannabis use on employees' work behavior may be more a matter of when than if. In other words, for those who are inclined toward cannabis use, the question is whether you are waiting until after work to indulge. The current research suggests that, in the words of David Wooderson, "It'd be a lot cooler if you did."

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on employee ethicality, prosocial behavior and the dark-side of leader personality.

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