Substance abuse in the workplace can be a serious problem for everyone involved. The risks are many and can include lost productivity, absenteeism, and workplace accidents.
But what do you do if you suspect a coworker or employee is suffering from addiction or under the influence at work? This guide can help. We’ll cover signs that a coworker or employee may be abusing drugs or alcohol, available treatment options, and how to know when to take action.
Substance Abuse in the Workplace
It’s Important to Take Action: Substance abuse in the workplace has numerous risks for addicted employees, their coworkers, and supervisors. These include:1
- Lost productivity.
- Increased risk of accident or injury.
- Increased risk of illness.
- Workplace conflict.
- Higher healthcare expenses.
- Increased workers compensation and disability claims.
Is Your Coworker Exhibiting Signs of Substance Use?
The first step to helping a coworker or employee who may be suffering from substance abuse is to recognize there might be a problem. There aren’t one or two behaviors alone that indicate a potential problem with alcohol and/or drugs, but you may notice significant changes in behavior, demeanor, appearance, and work performance that happen over time.
Some behaviors that can indicate a coworker may struggling with drugs and/or alcohol misuse include: 2, 3
- Consistent and often unexplained tardiness and absenteeism.
- Increased forgetfulness and mistakes.
- Social isolation or withdrawal.
- Decline in productivity and/or job performance.
- Falling asleep on the job.
- Mood swings.
- Physical changes such as dilated or constricted pupils, runny nose, bloodshot eyes, tremors, and unsteady gait.
- Vague complaints of illness and injury.
- Excessively loud or talking more frequently than normal.
- Requesting jobs with less supervision.
- Elaborate excuses for changes in behavior and performance.
- The smell of alcohol on their breath.
- Frequent unplanned absences due to “emergencies.”
- Patterns of absence such as specific days (e.g., Mondays or Fridays).
- Avoiding supervisors, especially after lunch.
If you work in the healthcare industry, there are other symptoms for which you should be on the lookout. These include your coworker or employee:2
- Volunteering to count narcotics more often.
- Making frequent medication errors.
- Losing, spilling, or wasting medication at an increased rate.
- Asking a physician for a prescription outside of an appointment.
Enabling Behaviors in the Workplace
Friends and family members often enable people with addictions. However, most people don’t realize that enabling can happen in the workplace, too. Enabling occurs whenever a person allows an addicted person to continue with their behaviors and not suffer consequences or be held accountable for their actions.3 Supervisors and coworkers may think they are being kind, supportive, or helpful; in reality, however, they could be enabling the person’s substance abuse.
You can avoid enabling your peers by:3
- Holding each other accountable and not taking on responsibilities they have neglected because of drug use.
- Refusing to cover up for their substance use or absence to a supervisor.
- Saying no when being asked to borrow money.
- Making excuses for your coworker.
- Referring them to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your company’s human resources department rather than trying to solve the problem yourself.
Supervisors can avoid enabling their employees by: 3
- Requiring employees to phone in their absences rather than allowing a spouse or other family member to do it.
- Requesting a doctor’s note for absences when applicable.
- Refusing to lend money to employees.
- Maintaining the employee’s current workload rather than shifting responsibilities to another employee.
- Consistently holding all employees accountable for their job performance and following safety procedures.
- Referring employees who show signs of substance abuse to the EAP.
Tips for Peers
If you are concerned a peer may have a substance use disorder that’s affecting performance or creating an unsafe workplace, there are some general approaches you can take, including:2
- Observing your coworker’s behavior over time, looking for the changes in behavior mentioned above. If these behaviors are consistent, then consider talking to your coworker about your concerns. If you don’t feel comfortable raising it with them directly, report the behavior to a supervisor.
- Documenting your observations immediately once you notice the behavior, including the dates and times your colleague engaged in unsafe behavior. Be as objective and as detailed as possible.
- Referring to your employee handbook and following your company’s internal policies for guidance on steps to take.
- Sharing your concerns confidentially with a supervisor and providing your documentation.
- Sharing information about your company’s EAP informally with your colleague.
It’s important that you not attempt to diagnose your coworker or operate under the presumption that there’s a substance use problem. This is not your job. Instead, refer the person to professionals who can help and go to your supervisor or human resources department for assistance if you think the behavior is a safety issue or otherwise putting the company at legal risk.
Tips for Supervisors
Avoid addressing a potential substance abuse problem directly with an employee. A supervisor should not assume an employee is struggling with substance abuse but should focus on objective work-related job performance and safety issues that may be impacted by substance use. If it’s clear that an employee is intoxicated or in danger, this should be addressed immediately. If available, an employee relations or human resources specialist should be consulted for guidance.3
Some additional tips for supervisors addressing an employee with a potential substance abuse problem are: 3
- Address the employee’s safety and the safety of others first and foremost, and as soon as the concern is realized.
- Remember that approaching an employee is not like approaching a loved one. Keep the conversation performance-based, professional, and objective.
- Avoid attempting to make any form of clinical or medical diagnosis or jumping to conclusions. Instead, only refer to the objective and measurable behaviors and focus on performance. Have specific information/details at hand to discuss rather than being vague or subjective.
- Provide information to the employee about the company’s EAP or any other resources that are available from the company that might support getting them treatment.
- Let the employee know that his or her job performance and/or attendance are being monitored, and if improvements aren’t made, there could be disciplinary action.
- Employees seeking treatment for a substance use disorder should be made aware of protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act (note this may not apply in cases where the employee is terminated for drug or alcohol use on the job).
How Does Employee Leave Work for Addiction Treatment?
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for any serious medical condition, which may include substance use.4
While employees may take leave for substance abuse, they can only do so if they are receiving treatment that is administered or referred by a professional healthcare provider.4
Company health plans may provide coverage for substance abuse screening, counseling, therapy and aftercare, including treatment follow-up.1
Should a substance use problem be identified as contributing to job performance problems or safety issues, consider setting up a Return-to-Work-Agreement (RTWA). An RTWA is a written document that clearly outlines the expectations an employer, EAP, and medical treatment professionals have for an employee that has completed mandated treatment for a substance use disorder upon returning to work.1
It will also clearly define the consequences an employee will have if he or she fails to adhere to the guidelines written in the RTWA. RTWAs are often used when an employee is mandated to attend treatment as a condition to remain employed or to be re-hired upon obtaining sobriety.1
Some supervisors are not sure when they can legally terminate a person who is using drugs in the workplace. Ultimately, it will depend on the situation. First, start by checking your company’s employee handbook and contacting human resources.
Treatment Options: Inpatient vs. Outpatient
Inpatient rehab is not the only option for people suffering from addiction. Inpatient treatment programs take place in a residential facility and may require the person to be away from home and work life for a significant period of time.
This can be challenging for employees who need long-term care, as FMLA only requires employers to provide 12 weeks of medical leave. This may not be enough time for the person to receive adequate treatment.
For some, longer-term outpatient treatment may be a more viable option, and it allows people to remain employed while in treatment.
Treatment options for people suffering from addiction include:1
- Residential treatment.
- Outpatient rehab.
- Partial hospitalization.
- Individual and group counseling.
- Behavioral treatment programs (cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, etc.)
- Medication-assisted treatment.
- Detox programs.
- 12-step programs.
- Support groups.
- Religious affiliated treatment programs.
- Holistic treatment (massage, meditation, yoga, nutrition, etc.)
- Aftercare/ relapse prevention programs.
Paying for addiction treatment can often be a significant barrier to those suffering from addiction. If your company offers health insurance, the employee likely has some coverage for substance abuse treatment. Refer the employee to the insurance verification form to determine his or her benefits.
- National Business Group on Health: Center for Prevention and Health Services. An employer’s guide to workplace substance abuse: strategies and treatment recommendations.
- Washington State Department of Health. (2016). A guide for assisting colleagues who demonstrate impairment in the workplace.
- Alcoholism in the workplace: a handbook for supervisors.
- Government Publishing Office. (2010). Title 29 – labor.
- Business Group Health: Numerous risks for addicted employees