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How to Recognize Addiction in the Workplace

What do you do when an employee you used to trust starts showing signs of addiction? They used to get their work done, but now they show up late. They used to spend time with coworkers, but not they just seem “off” somehow.

Alcoholism and drug abuse in the workplace can have a drastic effect on the entire team’s efficiency and turnover rate. If you suspect one of your employees is facing a substance abuse problem, here’s what you should do about it:

Identifying drug abuse or alcoholism in the workplace

The first step to combating substance abuse is noticing it’s happening in the first place. This is not always as obvious as one might think.

Functional vs non-functional addicts in the workplace

Many people have a mental image of what an addict is supposed to look and act like. However, the reality is that addiction can manifest in many different ways. Many people have a high ability to “manage” their addiction. They regulate when they use and how much, and they may seem normal even when high. This is called functional addiction, and many professionals are able to keep it going for long periods of time.

But employees in this position are still at risk.

They may feel like they have it under control, but addiction is a disease that slowly takes control.

They need treatment before the very real consequences kick in. Dealing with stress through alcohol, for example, can cause irreversible liver and brain damage if used long enough. And while they may seem okay during work hours, their habits may be different once they get home.

Signs of substance abuse

When someone is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, there are a few tell-tale signs that may show up in their work performance:

  • Erratic mood changes: If someone who used to be level-headed starts acting in unexpected ways or having a short temper, drug abuse may be the cause. Many substances have mood-altering qualities, and many others can cause intense withdrawal symptoms that can cause irritability, anxiety, and depression.
  • Poor hygiene: Unwashed hair or disheveled clothes—taking care of one’s appearance often falls to the wayside during addiction.
  • Disappearing for periods of time: The person may be sneaking off the premises to drink or abuse substances where they’re out of sight.
  • Unexplained behavior: A key sign is when the person does not give any explanation for something that you ask about. They may be secretive, or try to change the subject away from their behavior.
  • Tired all the time: Some substances severely impact sleep habits, and if your employee is running on empty all the time, there may be something more dangerous at play.
  • Frequent accidents or injuries: Formerly cautious employees may begin making simple mistakes, putting their life and the lives of those around them in danger.
  • Increased tardiness or absenteeism: This comes up especially in the later stages of addiction, where using becomes the most important activity in the person’s life.
  • Changes in coworker friendships: An individual who used to keep a few friends at work may begin withdrawing or eating lunch alone.
  • Items gone missing: Drug and alcohol habits are expensive. If company or employee property is disappearing, it’s possible that the addict is thieving in order to continue buying more of their substance.

It’s important to remember that these signs do not always indicate that an employee is dealing with addiction. But, as they say, where there’s a smoke, there’s a fire. These are common signs of addiction. If you see many of them appearing, there’s a high likelihood that the individual is caught in addiction and needs professional help.

Preventing addiction in the workplace

You can educate your employees and provide healthy outlets for stress. But the bottom line is that knowing your employees can help you identify and prevent addiction in your workplace. Training managers to recognize signs of addiction and how to handle it can be instrumental in keeping your employees healthy.

As an employer, what can you do about addiction?

If you suspect one of your employees has a drug or alcohol addiction, here’s what to do:

Document their behavior

Take note of the specific times when the employee is acting “off.” These records will be important in protecting yourself legally if you need to let them go, as well as allow you to sound more persuasive when you discuss the situation with the employee.

Research your resources

Many businesses have Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, which can provide counseling and assistance to those with addictions. Talking to your Human Resources department and reading the employee handbook will help you sort out exactly what your company provides.

At this point, it’ll also be helpful to research different types of treatment. That way, you can offer the employee specific recommendations to help them get clean and recover.

Consult your lawyer

There are lots of legal details that come into play when dealing with an employee who has an addiction. A lawyer will help you sort out exactly what you can and can’t say or do.

It’s also helpful to look into laws on your own. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act says that eligible employees can take unpaid leave for up to 12 months for a serious health condition. This may be an option your employee may want to take to have time for treatment.

Have a conversation

Approach the employee gently. Threatening to fire them right from the start won’t solve anything and getting angry will only be counter-productive. Instead, come to them as a concerned friend. Ask if they are on drugs or alcohol, and bring up specific times when it’s affected their work.

Once they agree to get treatment, you’ll also want to talk about what work will be like when they finish. Will they continue in their same responsibilities or will their role be altered?

Download the Addiction in the Workplace Guide

Is one of your employees showing signs of addiction? Get the facts. We’ve put together an informative guide that details not only some legal matters to be aware of but also the step-by-step course of action to take.

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“Signs and Symptoms.” NCADD. NCADD, 25 Jul 2015. Web. 19 Jul 2016. <>.

“Family and Medical Leave Act.” United States Department of Labor. United States Department of  Labor. Web. 19 Jul 2016. <>.

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August 6th 2016 | By: Jessie Gould | Posted In: Alcohol Treatment, Substance Abuse