An air traffic controller fell asleep in his chair while giving instructions to a pilot. A tractor driver ran over an 11-year-old boy. A nurse was found unconscious in her office. A construction worker was found dead in a port-a-potty. What do these individuals have in common? They were all at work ⎼ under the influence of drugs or alcohol ⎼ when the incidents occurred. Despite the popular belief that those struggling with addiction are jobless and living on the streets, over 70 percent of individuals struggling with substance abuse are employed. As the opioid epidemic continues to spread, employers can no longer turn a blind eye to the presence of drugs and alcohol in the workplace.
How Addiction Impacts the Workplace
From poor performance to lack of productivity, substance abuse costs companies $81 billion every year. It also creates dangerous work environments. While some industries have certainly been impacted more than others, no industry is immune to addiction.
Some effects of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace include:
- Tardiness and absenteeism
- Higher turnover
- Unnecessary risk-taking
- Poor decision-making
- Loss of efficiency
- Erratic behavior
- Illegal activity
- Decreased motivation
- Lower morale of co-workers
- Poor company culture
- Injuries, accidents, and death
Signs of Drug Abuse and Alcoholism
Recognizing when an employee is under the influence is not always easy. It is important that you learn these common red flags of substance abuse:
- Frequently missing days of work, typically without providing any advanced notice
- Taking multiple sick days without being able to provide a doctor’s note
- Making excessive trips to the bathroom
- Disappearing for periods of time
- Constantly being unprepared, forgetting appointments, and missing deadlines
- Changes in work performance, such as a decrease in quality of work or an increase in the time it takes them to complete a simple task
- Frequent accidents or injuries
- Poor memory and inability to focus
- Conflicts with other employees
- Erratic or aggressive behavior
- Poor hygiene
- Changes in mood and personality
- Secrecy and isolation
- Errors in judgement
Preventing Substance Abuse at Work
You may be thinking that none of your employees could ever become addicted. That none of them look like “the type.” But know that there is no “type,” that addiction does not discriminate, and that anyone from a construction worker to a doctor to a teacher can develop a problem with drugs or alcohol. The best way for you to address addiction in the workplace is to take a proactive approach. Do not wait for substance abuse to become a problem in your company.
Establishing Clear Substance Use Policies: It is important that your employees are aware of where you stand on drug use in the workplace. Including your policies in the employee handbook or putting them up in the breakroom will ensure that your employees know what the consequences are for drinking or using on the job.
Holding Workshops: Whether you want to approach non-profit organizations, enlist the help of treatment professionals, or do the research yourself, holding a quarterly workshop regarding the risks of substance abuse can help deter use at work. By tailoring the information to your industry, you can be sure to provide your employees with relevant, helpful information. For example, if you work in fitness, you may want to focus on the risks of becoming addicted to opioids after a sports injury. Or if you work in the restaurant industry, you may want to focus on how after work drinks can spiral into functioning alcoholism. Educational workshops not only help your employees learn the risks of excessive drinking and drug use, but they can also help other employees spot the signs of abuse.
Requiring Drug Screenings: Laws regarding drug testing vary by state, so be sure to consult a lawyer before adding a drug testing clause to your policy. If your state allows, performing random drug testing will discourage employees from using as well as enable you to spot a substance abuse problem faster.
Providing Resources: Many struggling with addiction feel alone and do not know who to ask to for help. You can help these employees by informing them of the resources available to them. Something as simple as posting information for local AA or NA groups in the breakroom or making relevant insurance information readily available can make all the difference. This lets them know that there is support out there and helps reduce the shame they may feel.
What Employers Can Do If They Suspect Substance Abuse
Finding out that one of your employees is struggling with addiction can be stressful. According to the National Safety Council, less than one fifth of employers feel prepared to tackle substance abuse in the workplace. Most do not know how to respond. To better equip yourself and your company against addiction, you should:
Know the Laws: Learning what you are legally allowed to say or do in this situation is important. Be sure to familiarize yourself with federal and state laws and consult your company lawyer before acting.
Explore Insurance: Familiarize yourself with your company’s insurance policy as it relates to substance abuse treatment. Knowing what resources your employees have available can help you encourage them to seek treatment.
Keep Records: You may be tempted to let some behavior slide, especially if the employee has been pleasant or hard-working up to this point, but documenting poor work performance and unacceptable behavior protects you if you ever need to take disciplinary action. Know that unless you catch an employee red-handed, you may have to provide proof of their excessive absences, missed deadlines, careless behavior, and aggressive conduct towards others before suspending or firing them.
Take Action: An employee working under the influence is dangerous for everyone involved. You simply cannot allow that to continue. So, you have two options: ask them to get help or fire them. Your decision will depend on your policy. If you have a zero-tolerance policy, you will have to fire the employee. If your policy is more lenient, you can place them on probation or suspend them until they get help.
- Terminating an Employee: Firing someone is never easy, but as a business owner, your job is to keep your employees safe and your business thriving. To do so, sometimes you must let go of an employee. Some states require a reason (and proof to back it up) to terminate an employee; others do not. Be sure to check your state laws or speak with a lawyer to protect yourself and your business. Know that just because you must fire someone does not mean that you cannot offer them help. You can always extend your support and point them to resources that can aid them in getting the help they need.
- Asking them to Get Help: Offering an employee an ultimatum – get help or get fired – is never easy. Your employee is likely to deny that they are using or become angry at the accusation. You will have more success if you avoid confrontation. Instead, address the issue from a place of concern. Let them know that you have noticed a change in them and use examples of how they have changed. Tell them that you want to know how you can help them get better. If applicable, inform them about insurance that can help them pay for treatment. Offer them other resources as well, such as information about local AA or NA groups. Remember, this is not an intervention, so do not include others in this conversation. This discussion should be between you and your employee only. If you have a Human Resources department, an HR representative should also be present.
Addiction in the workplace is not something that can be tackled overnight. But as an employer, you are in the position to have a real impact on someone’s life by cultivating a work culture that supports recovery. By educating your employees about the disease of addiction, you can help prevent it and encourage those struggling to get help.