Dealing with Addiction in the Workplace - Tips and Advice

With the number of people suffering from addiction in today’s round-the-clock work culture, it has become necessary for companies wanting to maintain a healthy office atmosphere to enact policies to prevent and mitigate drug addiction among employees.

Dealing with this tough situation is no easy task, and employers are faced with the task of either terminating the person suffering outright, or giving them a chance to mend their ways within a specified time frame, followed by termination should they fail to kick their destructive habits.

The path to addiction for employees is a gradual one, typically starting as casual use which progresses to the point of the employee being under the influence of drugs or alcohol 24/7, 365 days a year. The effects of serious addiction not only harm a person’s workplace performance and personal life, but also have the tendency to spill over into the office environment; affecting colleagues and, in extreme cases, company operations as a whole.

It’s no secret that drug and alcohol addiction in the workplace has become somewhat common not only in America but across the globe. Studies conducted by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, have shown that 70% of the 14.8 million Americans suffering from addiction are employed, with an alarming 24% of employees surveyed admitting to drinking on the job at least once. It has been observed that drug or alcohol addiction tends to have serious implications on employees including absenteeism, poor performance, dipping productivity levels, workplace injuries, and even road accidents. Moreover, in certain lines of work, victims of drug or alcohol addiction are not only risking their own lives but the lives of others in their workplace.

The main question asked by employers is how to deal with employees having substance abuse problems, and we’ll be discussing this in further detail below:

How to Handle Employee Addiction Before It’s Too Late

As an employer, it’s important for you to address drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace before it spirals out of control and there are a few crucial steps you can take to help solve the problem right from the start. First and foremost, it goes without saying that you should have a written company policy in place prohibiting drug and alcohol consumption in the workplace. As soon as they’re hired, all employees should be asked to read and sign it, confirming their understanding and acceptance of the policy. Next, a team, supervisor, or even the employer themselves should be tasked with keeping an eye out for signs of drug and alcohol abuse in and around the workplace and among employees. Last but not least, employers should promptly and sternly deal with employees suspected of substance abuse.

Identifying Employees with Substance Abuse Problems

Identifying employees struggling with drug or alcohol dependency is not as easy as it sounds. At the very least, you need to know exactly what to look for. and some of the most obvious signs include:

  1. Absenteeism/More Frequent Personal or Sick Days: Employees affected by drug or alcohol addiction are likely to frequently show up late to work and take more personal or sick days off. In extreme cases, employees might begin calling out at the last minute or not even showing up at all. Such behavior is a potential sign of addiction and one to look out for, especially if these occurrences often take place on Mondays, Fridays, or just after payday.
  2. Physical and Behavioural Changes: Abnormal behavior and conduct, whether on or off the job, is another tell-tale sign that an employee may be struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Employees suffering from addiction can exhibit tell-tale physical signs like smelling of alcohol or drugs, extreme fatigue, bloodshot eyes, or slurred speech. When gripped by addiction, a person’s behavior is prone to change and they may avoid social interaction and behave in ways that seem unnatural.
  3. Lack of Discipline: Drug and alcohol abuse can make even the best of employees argumentative, short-tempered or quarrelsome. Employees addicted to drugs or alcohol might stop interacting with their co-workers at lunch or during breaks and are typically keep to themselves. They might also begin to suffer from rapid mood swings, like being cranky and apprehensive in the mornings or after holidays or weekends, slowly improving throughout the day.
  4. Declining Work Performance: Poor performance or drastic drops in performance is another indication of drug and alcohol abuse among employees. With their main focus being on their addiction, victims of addiction tend to miss their deadlines or commitments more often, and their work, in general, becomes sloppy.

NOTE: If an employee is exhibiting any of these signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Signs are typically observed in groups and rarely does an addicted employee display just one. The onset of multiple signs at once, especially in groups of two or more employees, generally points toward an addiction problem.

Tackling Addiction in the Workplace

If as an employer you are suspicious about any of your employees abusing drugs or alcohol, then the first thing you should do is look for and collect evidence. The employee’s supervisor or reporting manager should performance records, outlining any issues performance issues with details like time and date. While companies are not authorized to conduct mandatory drug or alcohol tests on their employees, voluntary tests can still be administered in the majority of cases, like when suspected employees deny any substance abuse. It is advised that before confronting an employee, their supervisor or reporting manager should first review the signs of abuse with an Employee Assistance Program counselor, after which the employer can move on to some of the below steps:

  1. Company Policies on Drug and Alcohol Abuse As previously mentioned, employers should first and foremost establish and implement clear policies for employees regarding the company’s stance on drug and alcohol use.

  2. Handle with Care, Bring in Professional Help If the employee is performing well, then avoid directly confronting them on any suspected drug or alcohol abuse. Instead, their supervisor or manager should pay close attention to their job performance and refer them to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) should performance levels start to drop. When being referred to an EAP, the employee’s supervisor should make it clear that if employees aren’t able to rectify any performance issues, then they potentially face further disciplinary action or termination. Employees can’t be forced to attend EAPs, but a supervisor can attempt to motivate troubled employees into doing so.

  3. Talk Privately, Avoid Public Discussions on Addiction Any discussions related to suspected addiction, workplace performance or other disciplinary issues should always be done in a private place, at a pre-determined time. Publicly discussing an employee’s suspected addiction only serves to demoralize the employee in question, along with their colleagues and is not at all helpful.

  4. Be Stern, Don’t Get Soft You might have noticed family members suddenly becoming stern and strict with loved ones suffering from addiction, this is for their own good and helps with the recovery process. The same applies in the workplace, supervisors or employers should not display soft behaviors and actions, such as lending money to the employee, making excuses for them, being overly sympathetic, or transferring their work to others.

  5. Maintain Records to Deal with Denial Denial is one of the most common signs exhibited by sufferers of drug or alcohol addiction. If an employee showing the signs and symptoms of addiction is in constant denial and refuses to attend an EAP, their supervisor should document such occurrences and take remedial measures if necessary.

  6. Reach Out to Friends and Family for Help When an employee falls victim to addiction, their employer can consider getting their friends and family involved. A combination of friends, family, colleagues and loved ones confronting someone struggling can be just the motivation they need to seek professional treatment. One thing worth mentioning however is that the organization of such workplace involvements or interventions should be left to trained professionals, like an EAP counselor, and not necessarily an employee’s supervisor.

  7. Offer Comprehensive Health Plans To help employees struggling with addiction, employers can offer comprehensive health plans. Such plans should include coverage of all stages of rehabilitation including treatment, counseling, aftercare, and education.


To summarize what we’ve just discussed, if an employee is found to be suffering from an addiction that affects their productivity and overall performance, then the problem must be promptly addressed. Before taking the first step, it is essential for the employee’s supervisor to inform the company’s EAP department or program provider, and prepare them for the employee’s referral. If an employee’s job involves work that can potentially put their own, or other people’s, life at risk (like operating heavy machinery, working in healthcare, driving, etc.) then the employee concerned should immediately be stopped from carrying out such tasks until the problem has been tackled.

If the company has its own health unit, then the supervisor can ask the employee to spend some time there. A company’s health unit can recommend drug and alcohol abuse tests and determine whether the employee is, in fact, abusing such substances.

If an employee’s behavior suddenly becomes troublesome, then its best to send them home for the day (in a taxi, dropped off by a colleague, or accompanied by a family member). If an employee is quarrelsome, then an employer might have to get local law enforcement involved.

Whenever an employer is suspicious of employee drug or alcohol abuse, the employee’s supervisor should immediately pay close attention to the employee’s every move, documenting instances such as absences, performance problems, workplace misconduct, and negligent incidents.

In any case, an employer’s main goal should be to help employees overcome their addiction and lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives.


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