Drugs and Workplace Productivity

Productivity doesn’t just happen. It takes focus and sustained effort to accomplish work tasks. However, the amount of focus and effort varies, depending on the difficulty of the task.

The opposite is also true. That is, non-productivity does “just happen.” It is so easy to be non-productive – that’s why many of us can slide into a weekend of rest and relaxation without any effort!

But while at work, it is important to do our best to be as productive as possible. And in order to do that, it is equally important to respect our bodies and not use substances that can inhibit our work performance. Ever.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually.

As well, workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who had two or fewer jobs.

And, an astounding 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2003 estimated that legal substances (tobacco and alcohol) account for 79.3% of the total cost of substance abuse, while illegal drugs account for 20.7% ($8.2 billion) of costs.

With the recent explosion of “medical marijuana” retailers, these numbers are estimated to increase. Employers now find themselves in a situation where they need to consider even more so the impacts of once-illicit drugs on their workforce. The impacts on work productivity are difficult to ignore.

I continue to be in awe and amazed at the silence of the medical community about the ill effects of cannabis (usually termed “marijuana”). In terms of the workplace, however, cannabis has an immediate and ongoing effect on productivity.

It has been documented that cannabis causes the following side effects (this is not a complete list):

  • Decreased focus
  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased alertness
  • Decreased memory and thinking capabilities
  • Decreased motivation – as such, this affects the employee’s ability to relate to their colleagues, clients and customers
  • Increased risk of developing dependence
  • Increased risk of respiratory illness
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Diminished relationships – think about how this impacts teamwork in the workplace with added pressure being placed on non-users including poor collaboration on projects (as an example)
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased risk of injury of self or others (resulting in loss of time and potential workers’ compensation)
  • Decreased driving performance

Of note is that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada, with 10.6% of Canadians reporting past-year use in 2012. As well, Canadian youth have the highest rate of past-year marijuana use (28% in 2009-2010) compared to student in other developed countries.

While governments are starting to “give in” to the demand for legalizing marijuana, this legalization has put the onus on organizations to conduct their own workplace drug testing. In addition, organizations need to ensure adequate workforce training in identifying potential drug use.

Human resource departments are now even more critical to the organizations’ functions to ensure the business’s bottom line is not being impacted by drug use.

One of the ways in which HR can help is to build relationships with managers and employees. When you know someone, it’s much easier to identify changes in behaviour and productivity and to provide proper intervention.

In addition, implementing policies and procedures will help all workers be aware of the signs and symptoms of drug use. Much like personal issues or inter-staff and management issues, keeping substance use/abuse top-of-mind helps to identify the problem, so it can be addressed quickly.


Open Office – Productivity Enabler or Slasher?

Today, about 70 percent of employees in the U.S. work in open offices.  Despite this high number, you may be surprised to learn that the open office concept is not the be-all and end-all for everyone. Success depends on personal work styles and personalities and how well workers can adapt to the high level of distraction served up by open offices.  

According to the International Management Facility Association, workers in open plan offices get sick more often (62 percent more sick days on average), they don’t like the noise (sound and temperature are the most important factors in the environment), older workers really don’t like the noise (those over 45 are more sensitive to noise and temperature), and open offices deplete productivity.

The biggest impact on productivity tends to be distractions such as overhearing conversations, ringing phones and noisy machines Tonya Smith-Jackson and Katherine Klein in the Journal of Environmental Psychology identified reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy as factors negatively affecting productivity.

Another finding in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour confirmed that workers in open offices are more stressed and less satisfied with their work environment. After returning to survey the same workers six months later, researchers learned that not only were workers still unhappy with their new office, but their team relations broke down even further.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the noise in open offices decreases cognitive performance. Psychologist Nick Perham states that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out office intrusion does not help – even that impairs mental acuity.

While open offices seem to be better suited to younger workers, a study in 2012 by Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe found that certain types of noise such as conversations and laughter are equally distracting to Generation Y workers as they are to their older counterparts. However, younger workers enjoyed the camaraderie of open spaces, valuing their time spent socializing with coworkers. And while younger workers acknowledge the “problems” of open offices, they see them as fair trade-offs for a greater good.

But the trade-off is not as great as it might seem. Regardless of age, when we are exposed to too many inputs at once – a computer screen, conversation, music, telephones, email alerts – our senses become overloaded and more work is required of us to achieve a desired result. Those unable to screen out distractions in the office are frantic multitaskers.

According to Maria Konnikova (Open Office Trap), as a workplace norm, the multitasking millennial seems to be more open to distraction. However, their wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation:  They enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run.

It seems that the tried and true traditional offices that include cubicles are still the best despite their drawbacks. Research leads us to believe that employees are far more productive (and happier) in these controlled and focus-driven environments than in the open office.

Working to Death

A recent reader survey shows that British Columbia’s business professionals are working long hours, trending to near 70-hour work weeks. If you’re in this group, you’re setting yourself up for serious health and safety problems, most of which stem from sleep deprivation. In addition to these concerns, working long hours is counterproductive and does more damage to your organization than you might think.

The more you work, the less efficient you become. This results in more waste and less productivity. If the cycle continues, the end result can range from absenteeism due to stress and sickness to accidents on the job and even to death. One of the best ways to get yourself off the cycle of overwork is to pay attention to your work when you’re at work. Become efficient and productive during your regular working hours and you’ll never again need to put in regular overtime.

Here are ten things you can do right now to improve your productivity – i.e., do more in less time:

  1. Eliminate your physical and electronic clutter. Both are wastes that inhibit your performance. A clean office with sparse décor and no stacks and piles of stuff is more conducive to productivity.
  2. Zone in on your work. Organize your work items in zones based on how frequently you access or need an item. For example, if you use a paper cutter only once a month, there is no need for it to be in your office (zone 1).
  3. Move email out of your inbox daily. At the end of the day, your inbox should contain ZERO items – each email you open must be handled immediately. Use the B-F-A-T rule. After you open an email, read it and then B-bring it forward (if further action is required), F-file it (no action is required), A-act on it immediately (if a short response will do), or T-delete (toss) it.
  4. Prioritize tomorrow’s activities the day before. Then work on your priorities as scheduled. Stick to your schedule.
  5. Stop procrastinating at work. Socializing and playing computer games while at work only adds to your workload. Get help for procrastination – it could be as simple as taking a day off to refresh and recharge.
  6. Don’t ignore overwhelm. Figure out why you’re overwhelmed, resolve your issues, and move forward. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with work, maybe you’re in the wrong job.
  7. Think before you act. Productive people spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to accomplish tasks before they actually do them. This helps prevent re-doing work.
  8. Configure your office space. The most efficient office space is a U-shape. It enables efficient workflow, saving you time. Better yet, ask your boss to consider an open space design for the entire organization. It will help improve your creativity and productivity.
  9. Use project management skills for big projects. If you’re new to project task estimating, take a best-guess at how long a task will take and then multiply that time by three to get a true timeframe.
  10. Use standards and procedures. If your organization does not have standards and procedures for EVERYTHING that needs to get done, then you are spending more time on tasks than necessary.

Implementing these ten tips will help you decrease your hours at the office, so you have more time to spend with family and friends doing the things you love. And at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to your employer to return to work mentally refreshed the next day.

Is Your Cubicle the Source of Your Work Stress?

Office cubicles were introduced in 1968 by Robert Propst and were intended to increase office productivity. The idea was solid at the time, but as real estate costs grew, cubicle sizes decreased and are now a way of maximizing floor space by getting as many people into as little an area as possible. While this appears to be a logical solution to space problems, the solution has created other problems. Specifically, decreases in productivity and creativity.

Cubicles contribute to ill health such as back and eye strain (it turns out that the “one size fits all” model does not fit all). In addition, the constant hum of activity around cubicles inhibits concentration and affects physical wellbeing. The physical and psychological strains force your body to release hormones that increase your pulse and breathing and tense your muscles.

While we can all manage stress sometimes (and we know that stress is important in some situations), the relentless stress on your body not only makes you ill (e.g., potential for high blood pressure, heart attack, chronic fatigue, diabetes, depression, etc.), but it also decreases your productivity. Employees with health issues coupled with low productivity are exactly the opposite of what employers want.

In addition to physical and psychological stress and decreased productivity, cubicle workers also have a decreased ability to be creative. Constant stress impacts the hippocampus’s ability to learn new things and also prevents new memory from forming. And if the ability to learn new things and form new memory is impacted, creativity also shuts down. The question then is whether cubicles are sending companies backward rather than moving them forward?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’re trapped and powerless? Apparently, this is not just a state of mind. It really is the accumulated years of stress of working in cubicles. And it  can have detrimental consequences. In fact, the Japan National Center for Occupational Safety and Health acknowledges “Karoshi” (i.e., “overwork”) as a workplace cause of accidents or death. It reported 690 such cases in 2001, of which 143 were deaths. At the time of this writing, more recent statistics were not available.

If this isn’t enough to ring alarm bells for employers, in 2011 Stanford Medicine reported that those in high-stress jobs visited general practitioners 26 percent more and specialists 27 percent more compared with those in low-stress jobs. In addition, they found that in 2009, 70 percent of American employees considered their workplace a significant source of stress and 51 percent reported that job stress reduces their productivity.

Given these reports on stressful work environments, how can companies improve their workers’ productivity and creativity and, in turn, their bottom line? A study by Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program suggests that eliminating cubicles and closed door offices and going to an open bull-pen type of configuration offers the best results. While this is counterintuitive, the benefit is that all those working in the open area are more conscious of the effect of their actions on others and tend to be more focused on their work and more respectful of their neighbours. Noise levels are reduced and people skills are improved.

At the end of the day, the question is whether companies are willing to do away with their investments in cubicles. From my perspective and drawing on my own experience from having worked in cubicles, I suggest that the smart thing to do is to treat those investments as losses. The bigger long-term gain will be increased productivity and creativity from workers, not to mention a healthier, happier workforce. Improved teamwork will also be a nice side effect.

Overcoming Overwhelm

In this podcast, Mary explains that typically there is a combination of things that lead people to feeling overwhelmed and offers some useful techniques to get back on track.




Most people blame stress as the primary cause of their illnesses, their absent-mindedness, their inability to cope with life’s rituals, and their just-flat-out tiredness. The direct result to organizations is underperformance and a resulting loss of productivity.

Here are some statistics to put stress into perspective.

  • Absenteeism from work has increased by over 300 percent in Canada since 1995.
  •  In the United Kingdom, stress-related absences accounted for the highest number of days lost from work in 2010 (27 days on average).
  • The American Psychological Association in 2009 reported that 51 percent of employees said they were less productive at work as a result of stress.

If you think these numbers are high, you’re right. However, increased absenteeism is not as harmful to an organization as you might think. Presenteeism is worse.

Presenteeism is the loss of productivity that ocurs when employees come to work, but because of illness or other conditions, are not fully functioning. Not only do they underperform, but those with whom they interact may also be sucked into the abyss of presenteeism.

A study published in October 2011 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that more productivity was lost due to presenteeism than absenteeism, showing an average of three days of presenteeism every six months, which was twice as many days as absenteeism. A similar study in Australia in 2007 demonstrated that presenteeism cost organizations $25.7 billion annually and that on average, six working days of productivity are lost per year per employee due to presenteeism.

So is stress bad for productivity? Not necessarily. One needs a certain amount of stress to perform well, but what the research demonstrates is that organizations need to pay attention to their employees to ensure a healthy level of stress for peak performance. Here are some areas to watch out for:

  • Meaningfulness of work including the pace and variety – is it suitable to the employee? If not, look at work that is more suitable, but don’t dismiss the employee’s capability out of hand. You may be surprised at what creative genius may lurk behind what appears to be an underperforming employee.
  • Workload – is the employee overworked or underworked? Balance is necessary.
  • Role conflict – are there conflicting job demands or multiple supervisors or managers? Fix this.
  • Career development opportunities – does the employee have opportunities for career development through the organization? Provide the necessary opportunities. It’s more expensive to hire and re-train a new employee than it is to upgrade skills of an existing employee.
  • Role ambiguity – ensure there is clarity about the job responsibilities and expectations. Job performance plans may be helpful here.

And finally, as the organization’s leader, put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Have an honest look around. Now change what needs to be changed to improve your employee’s and your organization’s productivity.