Drug or Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace: A Guide for Coworkers & Supervisors
Employees and coworkers who are intoxicated or suffering from addiction present a number of risks to the workplace, including:1
- Higher healthcare costs for injuries and illnesses.
- Increased rates of absenteeism.
- Reduced productivity.
- Safety risks.
- Increased workers compensation and disability claims.
Not only can the person create an unpleasant and uncomfortable working environment, but they can also be a danger to themselves or others.
Addressing these issues can be tricky, regardless of whether you are a manager or peer. But it’s important to deal with the problem before it affects workplace well-being and causes other serious problems.
Continue reading to learn more about the signs that could indicate a coworker or employee may have an addiction and how you can provide the best assistance possible.
Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse at Work
If you have a suspicion that your coworker or employee is abusing drugs or alcohol, being aware of the signs and symptoms can help you take certain steps, such as referring the person to an employee assistance program (EAP) if your company has one. Supervisors and managers of employees can document instances where potential substance use affects job performance.
Signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace include:2, 3
- Being late to or absent from work regularly.
- Being forgetful and making more mistakes than usual.
- Isolating or withdrawing from the social aspects of the work environment.
- A noticeable drop in productivity and/or job performance.
- Sleeping while on the job.
- Mood swings.
- Physical changes including but not limited to dilated or constricted pupils, runny nose, bloodshot eyes, tremors, and unsteady gait.
- Complaining about illness and injury more often.
- Speaking louder or more frequently than usual.
- Trying to get tasks or duties that require less supervision.
- Making embellished excuses for changes in their behavior or job performance.
- The smell of alcohol on their breath.
- Claiming to have an “emergency” often to explain tardiness or absences
- Absence on specific days of the week.
- Actively avoiding managers, particularly after lunch.
Drug or alcohol use in the workplace can look a little different if you work in the healthcare field. If this is the case, look out for:2
- A desire to count narcotics more often than usual.
- Medication errors made frequently.
- An increased rate of losing, spilling, or wasting medication.
- Requesting a prescription from a physician outside of an official appointment.
Enabling at Work
There’s a fine line between enabling and helping: Enabling allows the person to avoid taking responsibility for and dealing with the consequences of their behavior.
In the workplace, examples of enabling behavior can include:3
- Making excuses or covering for the person.
- Letting the person borrow money.
- Allowing the person’s partner or friend to call in sick, instead of the employee himself.
- Avoiding making referrals to the company’s EAP when you know you should.
- Transferring the person’s job responsibilities to others.
- Trying to provide counseling to the person on your own.
- Making excuses for the person’s behavior to others.
- Making adjustments to the person’s schedule, such as letting them come in late.
If you are a manager or peer, you can avoid enabling by creating firm boundaries. This is not always easy, especially if you have established a pattern of enabling in the past. The most important step to take as a manager is to hold the person accountable.
Tips for Coworkers
It’s not up to you to diagnose or counsel your coworker if you suspect they have a drug or alcohol problem—this is the reason that many companies have EAPs.4
If you suspect your coworker is intoxicated or engaging in unusual or unsafe behavior, you can take steps such as:2
- Documenting all instances, including time and date and a description of the incident or behavior, as well as who was involved or present. Try to stay as objective as possible in your reports, documenting incidents and how they affect job performance.
- Discussing your concerns confidentially with your supervisor, another manager or someone in your company’s human resources department.
- Looking at your company’s internal policies for guidance on steps to take.
Tips for Supervisors
The suspected use of drugs or alcohol in the workplace should be addressed sooner rather than later. This may help avoid some of the issues created by substance use in the workplace, such as lowered workplace moral, lost productivity, and a potentially unsafe work environment.1
Before confronting an employee, you should have a reasonable suspicion that they are abusing drugs or alcohol in the workplace. You should have specific, objectively written notes that document instances of poor job performance or unsafe work practices. This will ensure that you’re ready to discuss the impact of the employee’s addiction objectively as it relates to their job performance.
You should act immediately if the employee is presenting an immediate danger. Remember that talking to an employee is not like talking to a loved one—keep the conversation focused on job performance and stay professional at all times. Do not try to make a diagnosis or counsel the person.3
You should conduct the meeting in private and not in the presence of other employees. Focus on the person’s performance and have documentation and specific information or details at hand to discuss these issues.3 Your company’s human resources department may require additional steps or wish to have a representative present at the meeting. Make sure to follow your company’s policies correctly.
Your role is to address the impact of the person’s performance and safety on themselves and others. If you have an EAP, consult an EAP counselor for advice first before you confront the person. You can then refer the person to the EAP.1
If the employee denies the problem or doesn’t accept the EAP referral, you should continue to document problems, take any necessary disciplinary action, and keep meeting with the person as necessary. Continue to hold the person accountable for their actions and behavior.3
Handling Employee Leave for Substance Use Treatment
The laws relating to employee leave for substance abuse treatment fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This gives many employees right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period when needed to receive treatment for a “serious health condition” — which, under the FMLA, can include substance abuse.5 The person can only take this time for substance abuse treatment that is administered by a healthcare provider or through a referral from a healthcare provider.1
Before the person returns to work, a Return-to-Work Agreement (RTWA) can be used to outline the conditions and expectations employers and the EAP have for the person once they return to work.1
Developing an RTWA typically requires several steps, including coordination between the employee, employer, union, EAP, and/or treatment professionals. The employee should have been notified in advance through company policy documents that they can expect an RTWA as a condition of continued employment.1
Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment: What’s the Best Choice?
Although inpatient rehab is beneficial for many people with addiction, it’s not the only option. Inpatient rehab/hospitalization is usually advisable for people who:1
- Have had unsuccessful attempts at less intense treatment.
- Have other medical conditions that make less intense treatment unsafe.
- Have a risk of severe withdrawal symptoms.
- Have a co-occurring psychiatric condition.
- Present as a danger to themselves or others.
Other forms of treatment include:1
- Partial hospitalization/intensive outpatient (IOP). This is useful for people who need a higher level of support than standard outpatient because they cannot refrain from using in less supportive settings and may not be suitable for inpatient treatment. People may use partial hospitalization/IOP programs as a way to step down from inpatient treatment.
- Outpatient treatment. In this form of treatment, people live at home and can continue to work while attending the programs, which vary in length and intensity. People may attend treatment between one and several times per week, depending on their needs.
Health insurance companies frequently offer some sort of coverage for addiction treatment. Many rehabs offer scholarships or payment plans, and some offer sliding scale fees based on the person’s ability to pay. Advise your employee to check how their insurance works for treatment, if that’s the path they have chosen to take.
The negative impact of substance abuse in the workplace affects the entire workplace, as well as the employee’s overall well-being. Choosing a substance abuse treatment facility that offers a comprehensive continuum of care is one of the best ways to start (and stay on) the road to recovery.
Recovery centers like Sunrise House offer a variety of addiction treatment care levels, including medical detox, residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, outpatient, and aftercare, which is crucial to prevent relapse and help cement a person’s newfound sobriety.
- Slavit, W., Reagin, A. & Finch, R. (2009). An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse: Strategies and Treatment Recommendations. Washington, DC: Center for Prevention and Health Services, National Business Group on Health.
- Washington Health Professional Services. (2016). A Guide for Assisting Colleagues Who Demonstrate Impairment in the Workplace.
- S. Office of Personnel Management. Alcoholism in the Workplace: A Handbook for Supervisors.
- Van den Bergh, N. (1990). Educating educators about alcoholism and drug addiction: the role of employee assistance programmes. Medical Law Review, 9(1), 713-23).
- Government Publishing Office. (2010). Title 29 – labor.