Substance Abuse in Social Services

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Social Service Workers

Reporting drug use to social servicesThe social services are broadly defined as community services provided mostly by governmental and sometimes private organizations, such as education, public administration, food services, subsidized housing, and other government services. According to the data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), governmental employees has relatively low rates of past-month alcohol use, past-month illicit drug use, and diagnoses of substance use disorders compared to most other occupations.

Percentage of drug addicts on welfareSAMHSA combines healthcare and social assistance into one group so the figures for workers in government social assistance programs that provide medical care only are different from private healthcare figures, but appear to be combined here. Nonetheless, the figures for the five-year period of 2008-2012 include the following:

  • Percentage admitting to past-month heavy alcohol use (“past month” refers to the prior month before the person responded to the survey):
    • Public administration: 6.6 percent
    • Educational services: 4.7 percent
    • Healthcare and social assistance: 4.4 percent
  • Percentage admitting to past-month illicit drug usage:
    • Public administration: 4.3 percent
    • Educational services: 4.8 percent
    • Healthcare and social assistance: 5.5 percent
  • Percentage with a substance use disorder in the past year:
    • Public administration: 7.2 percent
    • Educational services: 5.5 percent
    • Healthcare and social assistance: 5.7 percent

Of the participants surveyed, the average rate of past-month heavy alcohol use was 8.7 percent; past-month illicit drug use was 8.6 percent; and past-year diagnoses of substance use disorders was 9.5 percent. Thus, according to SAMHSA, government workers who provide social services appear to have relatively low rates of alcohol use, illicit drug use, and diagnoses of substance use disorders compared to the overall average rates of all participants in the survey.

Is There an identifiable Reason for the Low Rates of Substance Use Disorders Noted in Social Service Workers?

Reason for the Low Rates of Substance Use Disorders in Social Service WorkersFirst, it should be noted that reliable rates of substance abuse for some types of social service workers are not well reported. It could be that the particular occupations listed in the SAMHSA findings are significantly different than other social service occupations or for other government service workers.

Secondly, the occupations listed in SAMHSA are jobs that may have several protective factors built into them that may be associated with lower rates of substance abuse and substance use disorders.

  • Workers in these professions tend to be better established, and the mean age may be a bit older than in professions like the food and accommodations industry where the mean age is under 30. According to SAMHSA, older individuals typically have lower rates of substance use disorders than younger individuals.
  • Most public school teachers are female. According to the data in the year 2011-2012, it is reported that 76 percent of public school teachers were female. According to SAMHSA, females tend to be diagnosed with substance use disorders at far lower rates than males.
  • For the most part, social service jobs listed in SAMHSA do not require extensive overtime or the need to work a second job. Individuals who work more than 50 hours a week are more likely to use alcohol and illicit drugs than individuals who work less than 50 hours a week.
  • The jobs listed in the SAMHSA report may also some built-in protective factors regarding the nature of the work performed, such as:
    • Not being routine
    • Far less chance for boredom
    • Being relatively free of pressure to perform and stress compared to many other occupations
    • Offering challenges, positive interactions with others, and the potential for advancement
    • Giving the individual a sense of accomplishment and purpose

Percentage of drug abusers on social service workers is lower then other service providersJobs with very high rates of substance use disorders and past-month alcohol and substance abuse, such as the construction industry and the food service and accommodations industry, are often routine, can be boring, offer limited upward enhancement, and are often low-paying, such as in the food service industry. Other professions with high rates of substance use disorders, like the legal profession, may have upward mobility and good wages, but these benefits are outweighed by their stressful nature, long hours, and significant pressure for individuals to perform at peak levels.

Treatment Issues

While it appears that at least according to SAMHSA, the social service industry has a relatively low rate of substance use, abuse, and substance use disorders compared to most other industries, and these values certainly fall below the mean level on these variables observed in other major industries, this should not be misconstrued as stating that substance abuse is not an issue in this industry. Substance abuse in the workplace is an issue for all industries, and individuals in any industry who suffer from any level of a substance use disorder should receive treatment. According to SAMHSA, some of the most important sources for addressing substance abuse in the workplace are Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

EAPs are designed to provide resources, information, referrals, and even treatment or counseling services for a number of issues, including substance abuse in workers. Most government employees have access to these types of programs, and most of the individuals in the social services will also have access to these types of programs. EAPs are staffed by professionals who provide short-term intervention and resolution to employees and to the families of employees. An EAP will provide a confidential substance abuse assessment for the employee as well as psychoeducation services to the employee regarding substance abuse.

The EAP will then provide the employee with a referral for treatment if the assessment indicates that a potential substance use disorder is present. The EAP will then continue to provide support for the individual, as they go through the recovery process and work with the employer to make sure that the individual is treated fairly. In cases where the individual may need to take time away from work to engage in an intensive recovery program, EAPs can work with management and the employee to draw a return to work agreement that can ensure that the individual has their job when they have reached a certain point in recovery.

EAPs can play a very important role in encouraging good health and wellness in employees while at the same time reducing the costs to the workplace of substance use disorders and other health risks or potential stressors.


  • The National Business Group provides information for employers about substance abuse in the workplace that is relevant to anyone interested in the topic.
  • SAMHSA has information regarding overall protective and risk factors associated with substance abuse.
  • More information on EAPs can be found at OPM.

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