Substance abuse in the workplace: The average person spends the majority of their week at work, so when there’s an issue with a coworker, it can cause stress and create a dysfunctional—sometimes physically dangerous—professional environment.
Substance use in the workplace not only exposes staff to numerous risks, but it also puts the person’s coworkers and managers in social situations that are challenging to maneuver.
If you’re struggling with how to address the problem of substance abuse in your workplace, this guide can help.
Signs a Colleague Is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol
It can be challenging to know when a coworker or employee is abusing or is addicted to drugs because:
- Different drugs have different side effects/signs of intoxication.
- People abusing alcohol and other drugs are usually good (up to a point) at concealing their behaviors.
It is NOT up to you to diagnose a coworker with a substance use disorder; however, if you are noticing some of the signs of substance abuse, you may need to take some steps to address the issue. The Washington State Department of Health lists some signs that may indicate a colleague is abusing alcohol or drugs:1
- Mental health changes, such as:
- Increased fear, anxiety, or stress.
- Acting paranoid.
- Feeling ashamed, guilty, lonely, or sad.
- Acting overly defensive.
- Problems concentrating and paying attention.
- Changes in physical health and appearance, for example:
- Decline in personal hygiene.
- Consistently runny nose and watery eyes.
- Red or glassy eyes.
- Very large or small pupils.
- Unsteady or uncoordinated walking.
- Being shaky, restless, or unable to sit still.
- Behavior changes, such as:
- Withdrawing from others.
- Seeming erratic or unpredictable.
- Complaining of not feeling well/giving nonspecific symptoms of illness.
- Falling asleep at work.
- Job-related signs, such as:
- Making more mistakes than usual.
- Seeming increasingly disorganized.
- Making elaborate or unlikely excuses for behaviors.
- Increased involvement in accidents on the job.
- Failure to follow policies and procedures.
- Sharp decline in performance.
Though many of these signs and symptoms are nonspecific and, in isolation, could easily be attributed to other causes, if the signs arise suddenly and are very different from the norm, the level of suspicion becomes reasonably raised.
The workplace is often the last setting in which addiction becomes obvious, which means problems in the colleague’s social life, finances, and family have likely been occurring for some time before it becomes apparent to you as a coworker or manager. Even subtle signs of a problem with substance abuse may be indicative of a much larger problem.1
Enabling Happens in the Workplace Too
People may assume that enabling only happens within the home or within other close friend or family networks dealing with addiction, but it can happen in the workplace as well. You are enabling when you take steps to minimize or eliminate the consequences of another person’s actions.2
You might feel as if you’re helping a coworker or employee when you allow them to escape the repercussions of their drug use, but the person needs to feel consequences of their behavior in order to change.
But what does enabling look like? When you think of enabling, you probably think of something like a parent paying an addicted child’s rent. But there are many ways to enable. At work, it can include actions like:2
- Covering up for a coworker’s mistakes.
- Lending them money.
- Allowing their spouse to call in sick for them.
- Delegating their work to someone else if they are falling behind.
- Adjusting their work schedule.
- Making excuses for them or accepting obviously fabricated excuses.
As a coworker or a manager, the best way to correct enabling is by avoiding the practice in the first place. However, if you have been enabling them already, you can make changes by setting and maintaining strict boundaries with the person.
Boundaries are specific limits you put in place to let others know what is and is not acceptable behavior. If the employee is your subordinate, clearly explain to them the consequences for coming in late, performing poorly (define what poor performance looks like for the position), engaging in dangerous behavior, behaving inappropriately or aggressively toward other staff, etc. Follow through on the outlined consequences as needed.
Tips for Peers & Co-Workers
As a peer or coworker of someone you suspect to be abusing substances, the way forward can be really unclear. You might struggle between not wanting to cause your coworker professional harm and wanting to help the situation.
In general, there are several universal tips for dealing with coworkers who have substance use issues. If your coworker’s substance use is putting others in danger at work, it is especially important to take some action. The Washington State Department of Health offers the following tips:1
- Review the company’s policies about substance use.
- Observe and document. Pay attention to the developing situation and keep written notes while sticking to facts, not opinions.
- Act and react calmly.
- Bring the issue to your supervisor. Do not try to address or resolve the issue independently.
- Consider an anonymous, confidential, or informal referral to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) to allow them to guide the process.
Tips for Supervisors & Managers
The role of the supervisor is full of responsibilities and pressures, especially when an employee is displaying the signs of substance abuse. The United States Office of Personnel Management suggests that supervisors keep their focus on:2
- Monitoring and reviewing the employee’s work.
- Setting and enforcing work schedules and tracking requests for leave.
- Taking appropriate action when issues arise.
- Referring employees to EAPs when needed.
You may feel compelled to tackle the issue of an employee’s addiction, but a manager’s role is to address issues as they affect an employee’s work performance and conduct.2
As a supervisor, you do not have to diagnose or treat the addiction. You only have to recognize the problems and take swift action to decrease the risk of harm to the individual and the company.
All supervisors should start by reviewing their company’s policies on substance use and consult with human resources (HR) and the EAP representative to establish a plan. From there, you can move forward. U.S. News and World Report offers the following tips:3
- Establish new or clearer policies regarding substance use.
- Schedule a meeting with the employee.
- Keep the discussion centered around the employee’s conduct and/or performance.
- Clearly outline the company’s substance use policy.
- Strongly encourage the employee to utilize available resources, such as the company’s EAP.
- Remind the employee that their job may be at risk if these issues are not corrected.
- Offer support without enabling.
- Discuss the laws as they relate to employee leave for substance abuse treatment. (See more below.)
In some cases where a person or group of people is concerned about another’s drug use, they utilize an intervention where they can express their concern, sadness, and anger in a confrontational meeting about treatment. Supervisors are not responsible for interventions and should not attempt to conduct one themselves. An EAP manager can provide guidance on this topic.3
Can I Drug Test?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an employee who seems unfit for duty due to a single episode or pattern of unsafe behaviors may be subjected to drug testing in the workplace. For-cause testing happens when a person appears intoxicated, and reasonable suspicion testing occurs following a pattern of problems. You may also choose to test if an employee was involved in a workplace accident. However, you may be limited in testing somewhat by local, state, and federal laws.4 Contact your Human Resources department for more information on when it’s legal and appropriate to perform a drug test.
Drug testing is meant to help the individual, the company, and other employees. Remember, the job of the supervisor is to act for the best interests of the employee and the company.
How Do I Deal with Employee Leave?
Some employees will find it necessary to take a period of leave to get help for substance abuse. Employee leave is often complicated as it is governed by federal laws that dictate the duration and reasons approval.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) permits workers to take up to 12 weeks of time off during any 12-month period without risking their employment.5 The leave must be for a “serious health condition,” which includes substance abuse issues, but the person must use this time to attend professional treatment.
Likewise, employees may take disability leave for substance use issues, but there must be a documented treatment plan to justify the time off.5 Disability leave may not have the same time limitations as FMLA.
When an employee is preparing to end their leave, it is essential to create a return-to-work agreement (RTWA). The RTWA is a collaborative document created by the employer, the employee, and the medical team to outline the expectations for work and the consequences of failing to meet these expectations.5
Deciding to terminate the employee depends on many factors within the organization and the state where the employment takes place. Ultimately, it may depend on the management, HR, and legal counsel to determine if termination of the individual’s employment is appropriate.
What Treatment Options Can I Suggest?
Mental health and substance abuse treatment options offer a spectrum of services to best meet the needs of each individual.
People with very intense and complicated substance use issues with minimal resources may require a high level of care like inpatient or residential rehabs.5
For many people attempting to get sober, the structure and supervision of an inpatient environment may be necessary to prevent early relapse.
Inpatient/residential treatment options offer 24-hour care for people with:5
- High risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
- Medical issues that need attention.
- Complex mental health issues.
- A history of poor treatment outcomes.
People with mild substance use disorders, support at home, and fewer risks factors can benefit from outpatient addiction treatments.5 Outpatient treatment may be an appealing option to your coworker, as it won’t require a leave of absence/time away from home and work.
Hopefully, the person’s employment status means they carry medical insurance. If insurance is in place, most or all of the substance abuse treatment will be covered through the plan. You can direct your coworker to Desert Hope’s free insurance benefits verification form to see if they have coverage for treatment at an American Addiction Centers facility.
If the person has no coverage, they may be able to find coverage quickly at healthcare.gov, or they could seek treatment that is available at low or no cost to them. This directory from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lists treatment programs with specific codes that tell you which programs are state-funded.
Why It’s Important to Take Action
Stopping the progression of alcohol and other drugs is vitally important to the employee, their coworkers, and the company as a whole. Some people may assume that substance abuse is not an issue in their workplace, but a majority of adults with substance issues are employed full-time.25
Employee substance use leads to:5
- Higher health care costs.
- More missed worked days.
- Poor productivity and performance.
- Increased workers’ compensation and disability claims.
- More safety concerns and risks to others.
- Substance abuse in the workplace has numerous risks.
Each year, substance abuse issues costs the United States approximately $275 billion and negatively impacts the lives of millions.5 Taking action is not only the ethical thing to do but also a good business decision.
- Washington State Department of Health. (2016). A Guide for Assisting Colleagues Who Demonstrate Impairment in the Workplace.
- United States Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.) Alcoholism in the Workplace: A Handbook for Supervisors.
- Yagoda, Robert. (2016). U.S. News and World Report. Addiction in the Workplace: Tips for Employers.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Drug Testing.
- National Business Group of Health. (2009). An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse: Strategies and Treatment Recommendations.