As an employer, one of the hardest things you may have to deal with at work is an employee struggling with addiction. Even if your organization has a clear alcohol and drug policy and conducts random drug testing, you may still occasionally encounter a worker who is caught up in substance abuse.
What are some of the ways to help an employee with a drug or alcohol problem? How do you spot the signs of an addiction? When is it appropriate to step in and offer help? What can you do to protect your business from liability regarding your employee’s actions? Most important, is there really anything you can do to make things better?
One of the Ways to Help an Employee with a Drug or Alcohol Problem Is to Know the Signs of Substance Abuse
Part of being a good employer is noticing when a worker is in distress—whatever the reason. Document the behaviors or physical signs that you or the employee’s coworkers notice that may indicate an alcohol or drug problem. These might include:
- Missing work frequently
- Repeatedly arriving late or leaving early
- Bloodshot or glazed eyes
- Dilated or constricted pupils
- A lingering smell of alcohol
- Hyperactivity with little productivity
- Avoiding supervisory contact (especially after breaks)
- Sleeping on the job
- Making mistakes or being involved in accidents
- Substantial weight loss (or gain) and lapses in personal hygiene
- Significant personality changes (aggression, irritability, depression, paranoia)
- Frequently trying to borrow money from coworkers or asking for a payroll advance
How Should You Address the Problem?
Ignoring the signs of alcohol and drug abuse at work is never wise. It may be uncomfortable to have a conversation about this subject, but finding out what’s really wrong is necessary. Do some research so you can offer solutions rather than just pointing out a problem. Start by understanding what resources are available to your worker. Here are a few ideas to get started.
● Review the company health plan. Many health insurance programs offer at least some coverage for addiction recovery. In-patient treatment at a rehab facility is usually prohibitively expensive, but outpatient options may be one of the ways to help an employee with a drug or alcohol problem.
● Investigate local support groups. Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous have chapters in most cities. Identify one or more nearby groups that have meetings at times that do not conflict with the employee’s work schedule.
● If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), find out how they can help your worker.
Can You Remove Doubt about the Substance Abuse?
What if the worker claims that everything is fine? Getting an employee to admit that they have a problem may be difficult if not impossible. As long as they keep denying it, they will not start the journey of recovery. If you have good reason to suspect that an employee is using at work or acting under the influence on the job, it might be necessary to prove it before taking additional action. This could involve requiring the employee to take a drug test or searching their personal effects on company property for drugs, alcohol, or related paraphernalia.*
It may also be wise to run a fresh background check to determine if an employee has recently received a DUI. If they are operating a vehicle on company time, your organization could be at risk if they are in an accident while under the influence.
Ensure all communication about the employee’s potential substance problem remains discrete and that related documentation is kept secure. In addition to being highly personal, addiction-related issues may be considered private health information and covered by privacy laws.
*Consult with your legal counsel about the best course of action and review your drug and alcohol policies. You want to make sure you have grounds to single out an employee for investigation.
Hold the Employee Accountable for Their Choices
Even if an employee is struggling with drugs or alcohol, they must be held to the same standards as other workers. This means their destructive actions, mood issues, tardiness, errors, and lack of productivity can’t be excused. Coworkers should not be expected to pick up the slack or make allowances for the addicted employee’s behavior.
As an employer, you actually can have substantial influence over an employee’s behavior. Have a private conversation with the employee to express your concern and offer resources. Take this opportunity to review your company policies with them so that the consequences clear. In states where it is legal to terminate an employee for substance abuse, you may find it appropriate to warn a worker that they need to get help or risk losing their job. This may be the wakeup call they need to make a positive change.
There Is Hope for Workers Facing Addiction
Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace can be very dangerous and costly. This doesn’t mean employers should write off addicted workers at the first sign of trouble. In fact, it often costs less to help an employee get treatment than it does to replace them. Pay attention and catch signs of substance abuse early to help get an employee back on track at work and in their life. It’s well worth the effort to find ways to help an employee with a drug or alcohol problem.