Substance Abuse in the Workplace: A Person-Centered Approach

June 28, 2017
Hands clasped together

Although it’s important to respect the privacy and personal time of your employees, what someone does on their own time can sometimes affect their work performance—especially when it comes to addiction-related issues. According to a report by the National Business Group on Health, “Studies have shown that substance-abusing employees function at about two-thirds of their capability and that employees who use drugs are three times more likely to be late for work.”
Identifying and confronting suspicions of substance abuse is an awkward and often complicated task in any relationship, but can be particularly challenging in the workplace. Not only do you lack the deep emotional connection of a personal friend or family member, but there are matters of professional liability at stake on both sides of the conversation.
Regardless of the difficulties, being a good leader includes supporting people in a way that empowers them to be the best version of themselves. Doing so benefits you as an employer, a business and a person. Be willing and prepared to handle suspected substance abuse issues in the workplace in a way that demonstrates both professionalism and compassion.

Substance Abuse Policies and Open Dialogue Nurture a Drug-Free Workplace

Substance abuse issues affect the work environment on many different levels, not only in terms of the performance of the affected employee but also the productivity of those around them. Encouraging a healthy company culture has wide-reaching ripple effects that benefit everyone involved. Aside from the obvious liability issues involving accidents, theft or injuries, substance abuse-related behaviors can contribute to absenteeism, loss of production, tardiness, poor decision making, interpersonal problems between employees and a higher turnover rate—all situations that can cost your company both money and morale.
Being open, upfront and proactive about your expectations is the best bet. Start the conversation before it’s necessary by maintaining an open dialogue about drug and alcohol abuse. Company policies, procedures and resources vary by industry and company size, but regardless of how many employees you have, the rules and repercussions should be explained clearly. Consider including the following as you create and implement your substance abuse policy:

  • The definition of substance abuse
  • The purpose, intention and/or objectives of the policy
  • Who is included in the program
  • Circumstances for drug or alcohol testing
  • How to maintain confidentiality when dealing with the issue
  • Resources to educate employees on substance abuse
  • Training and reporting systems for identifying signs of substance abuse
  • Plans for assistance or disciplinary actions for violations

Once the initiative is complete, spread awareness by including the substance abuse policy in employee manuals and training sessions. If you offer company wellness or employee assistance programs, make sure those resources are well-publicized and include substance abuse-related education and information.

Start the conversation before it’s necessary by maintaining an open dialogue about #substanceabuse in the workplace.

Recognize Signs and Symptoms; Manage Concerns with Compassion       

The most difficult part of maintaining a drug-free workplace is recognizing and confronting signs of substance abuse. Not only is it a sensitive subject, but employees may be fearful about answering honestly or addressing their own suspicions about a co-worker due to potential disciplinary action. Also, no one wants to accuse someone without evidence, and persons coping with addiction are often adept at camouflaging their issues. Keep an eye out for common signs of substance abuse, which can include:

  • Negative changes in work attendance or performance
  • Alteration of personal appearance
  • Mood swings or attitude changes
  • Withdrawal from responsibility or associate contacts
  • Unusual patterns of behavior
  • Defensive attitude concerning the subject of addiction
  • Slurred speech
  • Sleeping on the job

If you suspect one of your employees has a drug or alcohol-related problem, schedule a private meeting as soon as possible.
From a professional perspective, it’s best to frame your concerns around job performance. That makes keeps the conversation relevant and less personal. Focus primarily on performance issues like missed work, tardiness and low productivity. Before you meet with your employee, gather information including attendance records, performance reports and observations of managers, and invite another supervisor to act as a witness and to provide support.
Set the tone for the conversation by making sure your employee knows that you value and respect them as a person. Reiterate that they are a valuable asset to the company and that their potential is worth the investment of effort. Be cautious to avoid judgmental language while issuing your concerns, and give the employee an opportunity to explain while also being prepared for denial or defensive behavior. Remember that they fear termination and may not be forthcoming in a judgmental environment.
Conclude by presenting them with your expectations and their options, such as opportunities that allow them to seek treatment without having to fear job loss, and put them in touch with any resources available. If the employee will be taking time off to pursue treatment, draw up a Return-to-Work Agreement to outline expectations for continued employment and document the consequences if those are not met. Create a climate that supports personal growth and encourages transparency by making sure it’s clear that your desired outcome is their success.
From a legal standpoint, it’s also important to document everything. Hopefully, your conversation will be the beginning of the end of this particular problem, but having a written timeline of events signed by all involved parties may be beneficial if the issues continue or progress, eventually resulting in termination and/or legal trouble.
Of the 14.8 million Americans who are estimated to use illegal drugs, 70 percent are employed, making substance abuse issues in the workplace more prevalent than it may seem. Educate your employees on the dangers and symptoms of addiction-related issues, clearly define your expectations, and consistently follow the procedures put in place with respect and compassion.
Although it’s uncomfortable to address suspected drug or alcohol-related abuse issues, doing so protects the future growth and development of your employees and your business and demonstrates your capacity for compassionate and courageous leadership.
About the Author
Dr. Rod Amiri specializes in addiction psychiatry. He has received the Patients’ Choice award every year since 2008, representing less than 5 percent of active physicians in the United States. He serves patients at Malibu Hills Treatment Center, a facility located in Malibu, California.

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