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Workers on Drugs? Maybe Its the Work

October 05, 1986|CAROL TAVRIS | Carol Tavris is a social psychologist in Los Angeles

Employees are as irritating to employers as teen-agers are to parents. They won't obey. They pilfer and lie. They speak their own language. From time to time they just won't do anything useful at all.

Now, we hear, they have developed an even more annoying fault: They are drinking, sniffing, smoking and snorting. Punitive measures are called for. If the little sneaks won't 'fess up, let's test their rebellious bodies for drugs and their rebellious minds for lies.

There he goes again. President Reagan's latest proposal to invade our privacy and dignity would be a joke, a historical blip on the political graph of this country's many previous "wars" on drugs and deception, but for the vast amount of money, technology and time that we cannot afford to waste on ineffective programs.

To begin with, let's separate the smoke from the smoke screen. Drug abuse in this country is a problem that affects workers, teen-agers, housewives, athletes, actors.

But let's put the matter into perspective. How many people died from overdoses of cocaine last year? Several hundred. That's several hundred too many, of course, as the poignant headlines of famous deaths remind us. But how many people died from legal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, or from legal handguns? Hundreds and hundreds of thousands. Our President does not advise people to "just say no" to buying a gun or having a smoke, and he has not yet decided to bully Scotland into abandoning the manufacture of Scotch.

The current hysteria about illegal drugs, though grounded in a legitimate concern, distracts us from the real problems that this country faces and allows us to attack the messenger instead of the message. It is like criticizing violence in sports while ignoring the system--players, owners and fans--that permits and encourages it. If we really wanted to improve employee morale and motivation, reduce drug abuse and enhance the quality of family life, we could be doing a lot more that would cost a lot less.

To reduce drug abuse on the job (assuming that it exists in the dire proportions that we hear about), we could improve the working conditions of people's lives. It's not fashionable to talk of "working conditions" anymore--it smacks of unions and the subversive notion that perhaps people are affected by their circumstances. But consider this important longitudinal study conducted by Marvin Kohn and Carmi Schooler, sociologists for the National Institute of Mental Health who interviewed a random sample of 3,000 American workers over a 10-year period. In their book "Work and Personality," they report that aspects of work--such as fringe benefits, complexity of daily tasks, pace, pressure and how routine or varied the work--significantly changed the workers' self-esteem, job commitment and motivation. "Job affects man," the researchers concluded, "more than man affects job."

The degree of work flexibility was especially important. People who have a chance to set their own hours, make decisions, alternate tasks and solve problems are likely to rise to the challenge. They tend to become more flexible and tolerant in their thinking--and feel better about themselves and their work--than if they are stuck in a routine, boring job that gives them no control over what they do. As a result, their work motivation rises. "Working conditions," incidentally, apply to the work done by homemakers and students, too. Boring, routine, rigid work creates depressed and rebellious workers, no matter what the job.

We could also join the rest of the civilized world and spend some money for a sane national system of day care. (Day care was funded by the government during World War II. It wasn't until the men came home that it was pronounced a communist plot.)This step alone would reduce the amount of Valium and anti-depressants that working mothers take.

Finally, we could devote some money to drug education--for not just illegal but legal drugs, too. "Just saying no" hasn't worked for anyone since Adam and Eve. A more educated approach, one supported by research, might help teen-agers avoid "binge" drug use. Most of them binge in initial encounters with alcohol or other recreational drugs. Going on a binge--whether food, drink or drugs--sets up a pattern of excess, abstinence and relapse.

It rarely occurs to Congress, parents or employers that if so many people have so much trouble "adapting" to their jobs, perhaps there's a problem with the jobs and not with the individuals. Congress, parents and employers prefer to be punitive, even if it's ineffective, rather than constructive, which might be controversial. Prohibition didn't work for liquor, doesn't work for sex and won't work for cocaine.

Unfortunately, this latest war against drugs will endanger the innocent without affecting the guilty, which is why we cannot be complacent as it runs its doomed course.

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