Substance abuse in the workplace is not uncommon. Reports show that as many as 23% of those surveyed have been exposed to coworkers using or being under the influence of alcohol at work.1 Accidents, injuries, critical errors, and lost productivity are just some of the risks and potential negative outcomes in the workplace which can result from substance abuse.2
While the issues are prevalent, there is rarely a simple way to confront the issue of substance abuse, either as a peer or a supervisor. However, in this guide, we will examine some information which can help if you are concerned that an employee or peer has a problem with substance abuse.
Signs Your Coworker Might Be Abusing Drugs or Alcohol
Numerous signs could indicate a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, and should be taken seriously in the workplace.3
- Isolation and withdrawal.
- Mood swings.
- Angry outbursts.
- Anxiety and panic.
- Shame and guilt.
- Runny nose and watering eyes.
- Sleeping on the job.
- Constricted or dilated pupils.
- Glassy or bloodshot eyes.
- Impaired thinking and forgetfulness.
- Tardiness and absenteeism.
- Ignoring safety procedures.
- Decreased job performance.
- Frequent disappearances from work area or station, which can indicate a person is leaving to use drugs or alcohol.
- Implausible or highly complicated excuses for behaviors.
- Numerous complaints of illness or injury.
For those in healthcare professions, there are additional signs to look for, such as:3
- Volunteering to do extra tasks which involve drugs, such as medication counts.
- Frequent medication errors.
- Unusual pattern or losing or spilling medications, as compared to the average employee.
- Asking physicians to write prescriptions for them as a favor, outside of formal appointments.
- A pattern of patient complaints of poorly controlled pain, which can be a sign that the healthcare provider is taking some of the narcotic painkillers for themselves and only giving some of the medication to the patient.
It’s important to note that while these can be signs of substance abuse, they are somewhat nonspecific—in other words, some of these issues may arise in association with physical illness, mental illness, or emotional stress and can appear in people who never use drugs or alcohol. For example, a person with depression might exhibit increased isolation from others and, at times, mood swings.
Seeing only one of these signs is also not necessarily indicative of a substance abuse issue. Several of these behaviors or physical symptoms combined, however, would be more likely to raise suspicion that the employee is struggling with substance abuse. Patterns of behaviors that don’t seem to be the result of personal issues or some form of illness are what you should be alert to.3
Are You Enabling Your Colleague?
You may have read books or articles which address the concept of enabling—especially in family relationships—in which a person will cover up for someone close to them with substance use disorders. Enabling behaviors are complex and often stem from a desire to help the person avoid negative consequences for their behavior.
Enabling behaviors are not limited to family members, however. Coworkers and supervisors often enable employees, primarily out of the fear that the person who is abusing drugs or alcohol will be fired from his or her job. Enablers may also be too quick to accept promises from the person who is abusing substances to not do it again.
- Promising not to say anything about what you know.
- Doing the person’s job duties or reassigning them to others.
- If you are a supervisor, ignoring tardiness and absenteeism and allowing them to continue to be out and come in late without consequences.
- Coworkers who clock in for the impaired person to help hide lateness from a supervisor.
- Not reporting behaviors and symptoms to your supervisor.
- Making excuses for their behaviors or poor performance.
- Not holding the person to the standards of policy, such as allowing their spouse to call in for them when policy requires the employee calls in themselves.
Tips & Advice for Coworkers
If you see signs, symptoms, or patterns of behavior that point to a potential substance use problem in the workplace, it might be time to take action. You can:3
- Document instances where you suspect your colleague was intoxicated/engaging in suspicious behavior. Record dates/times/enough detail. Be objective.
- Look to your company’s internal policies for guidance on steps to take.
- Confidentially share your concerns with a supervisor.
- Share information about your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP)* informally with your colleague.
- Avoid attempting to diagnose your coworker. This is not your job.
*An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides short-term services like assessments and counseling for workers who have personal or work-related issues.4
Tips & Advice for Supervisors
It’s critical to address suspected substance abuse issues with employees due to concerns about workplace safety, job performance, and the safety of the individual, coworkers, and the public.5
Some employers may be reluctant to approach employees because they don’t want to falsely accuse an employee of having a problem with alcohol or drugs. Reasonable suspicion can be hard to define; however, a supervisor or HR representative can generally intervene when an employee demonstrates a pattern of performance issues or behaviors that go against company policy or job expectations.
Vague concerns, undocumented rumors, or suspicions without any real documentation should be avoided as a reason to talk to an employee.
For example, if other employees reported that an employee was frequently drinking outside of work, but no one had documented or observed impacts on work performance, it would not be appropriate to discuss the drinking with the employee, no matter how concerned you might be about them.
If you are a manager or supervisor, and you plan on meeting with the person who is believed to be using drugs or alcohol, it should be done in private. Furthermore, you should avoid using words like “addiction”, “alcoholic”, or “addict”, as you are not trained to make a substance abuse diagnosis.
Your mission is to talk to the person about your concerns based on performance and the impact of their behaviors on safety.
Your mission is to talk to the person about your concerns based on performance and the impact of their behaviors on safety. You can then refer the employee to the company EAP. It’s also recommended that you speak to the EAP manager in advance for guidelines and advice.
It’s better to address these issues sooner rather than later, as ignoring the problem makes it that much harder to address.
In workplaces where there is some leeway, the impact on performance and job expectations can provide the leverage to have the employee follow through, but much depends on state and federal law, and legal consultation may be needed in these cases to avoid violating employee rights. In cases where the employee admits to an issue or is visibly and seriously impaired at work, immediate intervention might be needed per company policy.6
Can Your Employee Take Time Off to Go to Treatment?
Employees can utilize leave for being out of work for substance abuse treatment, the same as with any other illness.
Family Medical Leave Act
FMLA, the Family Medical Leave Act, is a federal law that provides employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period to get treatment without fear of losing their job.7
FMLA is available to those who are receiving substance abuse treatment, provided that the treatment is being given by or recommended by a healthcare provider. The employee cannot take FMLA to deal with the symptoms of substance abuse without receiving treatment.7
Read American Addiction Centers Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Guide
Return to Work Agreement
A Return to Work Agreement is also frequently used in these situations, in which an employer and the employee enter into a written agreement which outlines what the employee must do to come back to work, and the consequences that will occur, including termination, if the employee does not comply with treatment and other requirements.5
In addition, the Return to Work Agreement is developed between the employee, the employer, the treatment provider, and the company EAP. This type of agreement should be referenced in company policy.5
In general, an employer can terminate an employee who is using drugs if the use of drugs violates company policy, the employee’s performance does not meet the job requirements, or their behaviors violate company policy. Legal consultation is often needed to determine an employer’s option in cases where it is not as clear cut.6
What Are the Treatment Options?
When many people think of treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, the first thing that comes to mind is inpatient rehab. However, there are numerous forms of treatment available. In general, the most common types of treatment are:5
- Inpatient or residential treatment, which may be most appropriate for people who have underlying medical conditions, co-occurring diagnoses, a history of unsuccessful addiction treatment at less intensive levels of care, or are using certain drugs that have dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
- Partial hospitalization/intensive outpatient programs, which meet for a few hours a day, two or more times per week. Many people attend programs as the first line of treatment, while others attend these programs after inpatient treatment as a step-down.
- Standard outpatient therapy, which might consist of ongoing counseling, usually once or twice per week.
Many people who are referred to treatment will be concerned about the cost of treatment. If your company offers insurance benefits, it’s likely the insurance will provide some coverage for some form of alcohol and drug treatment.
Speaking Up About Substance Abuse Is Important
Substance abuse can have a major impact on the workplace. There are numerous other reasons to stop substance abuse in the workplace, which include: physical dangers, lost productivity, and other economic costs.5
A person under the influence of alcohol and drugs is more likely to ignore safety procedures and put themselves at a higher risk of work-related injuries. Any employee coming to work under the influence of substances is at greater risk of a workplace injury, such as a routine fall, or having an accident in a company vehicle while delivering products or making sales calls.
It’s estimated that 40% of all industrial workplace deaths and 47% of industrial workplace injuries are related to alcohol use. Furthermore, people who use drugs are 5 times more likely to file a worker’s compensation claim for an injury.5
People who are using substances tend to have a higher rate of absenteeism and tardiness, as well as decreased work performance, all of which can impact productivity and strain the other employees in their effort to make up for these losses.
People who use drugs are shown to function at about two-thirds of their potential at work and are 3 times more likely to be late for work. Even light to moderate drinkers account for 60% of the alcohol-related absenteeism, tardiness, and decreased work performance.5
Further Economic Costs
There are other economic costs to substance use in the workplace, including higher rates of health insurance coverage for all employees. People with alcohol and drug use disorders utilize emergency room visits at a higher rate than other people, and almost half of all emergency room visits involve alcohol and/or drugs.5 Furthermore, problematic drinking can result in more healthcare issues and costs for complications such as liver damage, breast cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome in children, heart disease, and pancreatitis.5
If you are concerned about an employee, or coworker, or have concerns about your own issues with drugs or alcohol, it might be time for you to seek help or treatment.
- Frone, M.R. (2012). Workplace substance use climate: prevalence and distribution in the U.S. workforce. Journal of Substance Use 71(1), 72-83.
- National Safety Council. (2019). Implications of drug and alcohol use for employers.
- Washington State Department of Health. (2016). A guide for assisting colleagues who demonstrate impairment in the workplace.
- S. Office of Personnel Management. (2019). What is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
- National Business Group on Health. (2009). An employer’s workplace guide to substance abuse.
- HR Daily Advisor. (2018). How to approach an employee who might be dealing with an addiction.
- S. Department of Labor. (2019). Family and Medical Leave Act.