Managing employees with substance use disorders can be challenging. Learn about the impact of substance abuse in the workplace and what you can legally do.

According to a National Safety Council report, around three-quarters of those with addictions to alcohol, marijuana and pain pills are in the workforce. The same report indicates that the majority of employers are worried that prescription drug abuse and heroin use will negatively affect the workplace. Given the high prevalence of addiction among those who work, employers may be wondering how to manage this issue. 

Managing addiction’s effects on the workplace is a complex issue. On the one hand, 70% of employers feel that workers struggling with prescription drug use should be able to get their jobs back after going through treatment. On the other hand, employers may be concerned that people abusing drugs are placing the company at risk and negatively impacting productivity and finances. This can lead some to fire those who abuse drugs and alcohol. In fact, 65% of employers feel it’s reasonable to fire someone for prescription drug abuse, even though it’s a medical disease. 

Deciding whether an employee should be allowed to attend addiction treatment unimpeded is challenging. Given the complex nature of addiction, how should employers cope in America’s fight against drug and alcohol abuse?

Addiction’s Impact on Employers

A majority of employers are concerned about the effects opiates like heroin and fentanyl have on the workplace, and it’s for a good reason. 

Workers with addictions miss 50% more days of work compared to those without addictions, which causes lost productivity. Over one-third of employers report that opiate abuse has created problems with absenteeism and poor work performance. Others report problems including finding qualified workers and workers’ compensation costs: employees who abuse substances may be injured on the job, resulting in workers’ compensation claims.

In addition to creating dangers in the workplace, the ultimate result of addiction is that it negatively affects the employer’s bottom line. The estimated costs of having an employee on staff with an untreated addiction can be as high as $13,000 each year. 

Accidents, absenteeism and poor performance can all harm an employer financially. Equally harmful is when employees are fired or stop coming to work due to substance abuse, someone new must be hired to replace them. This turnover is also costly to the organization.

Zero Tolerance and Addressing Addiction

Some employers have a zero-tolerance policy for drug use among employees, but this type of policy may be flawed. For example, some states have legalized medical marijuana but still allow zero-tolerance policies. An employee may be using medical marijuana under the direction of a doctor and are fired for using a legitimate prescription. Some people who are addicted to opiates are obtaining them legally through a doctor. They, too, could be fired under a zero-tolerance policy, despite taking a medication legally as prescribed by a medical professional. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) notes that some companies have faced court battles, and lost when employees have alleged that they were discriminated against after being fired for using medical marijuana.

Zero tolerance laws address drug use, but they often do not address addiction as a medically-recognized disease. Addressing addiction within the company can include policies, but it can also include proactive steps to help employees suffering from a substance use disorder. These initiatives can include:


If an employee tests positive on a drug test, you can refer them to treatment instead of immediately terminating them. This also involves training managers to recognize the signs of substance abuse, so they can identify who may need treatment.


Addiction often co-occurs with other mental health conditions. Poor mental health also increases the likelihood of becoming addicted to substances. Offering access to mental health resources and check-ins can help reduce the impact addiction has on your workplace.


It is important to set clear policies surrounding these drugs and consult with an attorney regarding what the laws in your state will allow you to do. According to SHRM, best practices for marijuana use are to set a  policy for use while on the job, train supervisors to recognize when someone is impaired by drugs and clearly educate employees about policies surrounding marijuana use. In terms of prescription opiate use, you may have to be more careful. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you cannot fire an employee for legal opiate use, and you must consider whether a person who uses opiates can perform their job safely with accommodations. This means that a zero-tolerance policy for prescribed opiates could be against the law. Your policy may allow employees to disclose any prescription drugs they are taking legally. This could involve asking employees to provide prescription information before a drug test or allowing them to explain a positive test result.

Our Services

We work with you to meet your needs and customize a solution for your specific challenges. We most often work with employers in the following ways:

  • Drug Policies & Culture Assessments
  • Training & Compliance
  • 24/7 Real-Time Support

Securing Insurance & EAP Benefits for Substance Abuse Treatment

If you are looking to help avoid the issues that come with employee addiction, it is helpful to secure Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits for substance abuse treatment. As an employer, you can sponsor such a program, and employees can access the program for counseling or referral to substance abuse services.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers usually cover employee assistance program’s costs, but the investment is worthwhile. These programs can assess employees with substance abuse concerns and help them get the treatment they need, so they are an effective tool for managing employee drug use. 

Investing in an EAP can help an organization’s bottom line by: 

  • Helping employees stay productive at work
  • Reducing worker’s comp claims
  • Improving work attendance
  • Reducing turnover

As a tool for preventing and addressing employee addiction, EAP programs create a positive work environment and reduce the financial and social impact that employee drug use has on the workplace. 

EAP programs help you act quickly to refer employees for services should the need arise. These programs sometimes provide management with training on recognizing signs of substance abuse and managing employee drug use. Employees will also be able to confidently access services on their own. 

Another benefit of securing an EAP program is that you will know where your employees are going for treatment and can vet the provider. You may want to make sure:

  • You’re offering your employees a recommended, evidence-based treatment provider with qualified, credentialed staff.
  • Relevant employee needs like religious affiliation or LGBTQ acceptance will be taken care of. Certain professions may have specific treatment needs, like first responders. 
  • You know what treatments your company’s insurance provider will cover at the recommended facility. 

Keep in mind that even if you select an EAP program for your organization, employees still have rights to confidentiality. As SHRM cautions, substance abuse information is protected by federal law, so an EAP cannot release information to you without the employee’s consent. If an employee is working with the EAP on a mandatory basis because of performance-related issues, the EAP may provide you with limited information, such as whether the employee is attending appointments and making progress. 

Supporting Access to Treatment & Return-to-Work Agreements

As an employer, supporting access to treatment is an effective method for managing employee addiction. Second chance policies and return-to-work agreements provide a supportive environment for your employees and benefit your organization: workers who are in treatment miss less work, are less likely to be hospitalized, and have a lower chance of causing turnover. Providing easy access to crisis or emergency services can also be helpful for employees. An EAP program can provide crisis intervention services for employees who require immediate assistance. 

In some cases, supporting treatment and recovery from substance abuse may also be required by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that you cannot fire an employee who is addicted to illegal drugs but currently in treatment, as long as the person is not actively using drugs. 

In addition, The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) indicates that a person’s job is protected if they seek treatment for substance abuse. This means that if an employee approaches you and indicates they are going to treatment, they cannot be fired simply because of the choice to seek treatment. That being said, if an employee violates an established policy regarding substance abuse, they can still be terminated. 

What all of this means is that if an employee wants to return to work after completing substance abuse treatment, the law may protect this right. It is important that human resource managers and supervisors be trained on these laws and how to respond to an employee who wishes to seek addiction treatment.  

When Your Company Needs to Seek Help

If you have concerns about employee addiction and its effect on the workplace, The Recovery Village is here to help. Reach out to us today to discuss how we can help you with managing employee drug use. Our community outreach team can help your business get a plan together to address addiction or help you handle a current employee’s situation.

a woman wearing glasses and a blazer.
Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
a close up of a person with blue eyes.
Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

ADA National Network. “The ADA, Addiction and Recovery.” Accessed November 1, 2020.

Cornell Law School. “29 CFR § 825.119 – Leave for treat[…] substance abuse.” Accessed November 1, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “How can the workplace play a role in substance abuse treatment?” January 2018. Accessed November 3, 2020.

National Safety Council.  “Drugs at Work: What Employers Need to Know.”  2020. Accessed November 2, 2020.

National Safety Council. “Prescription Drug Misuse Impacts Mo[…] U.S. Workplaces.” March 9, 2017. Accessed November 2, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts.” June 2018. Accessed November 3, 2020.

Society for Human Resource Management. “Managing Employee Assistance Programs.” Accessed November 3, 2020.

Society for Human Resource Management. “Marijuana and the Workplace: It’s Complicated.” August 28, 2019. Accessed November 3, 2020.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Use of Codeine, Oxycodone, and Other […]on for Employees.” Accessed November 3, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.