Substance Abuse in the Workplace: How to Support a Coworker

Substance Abuse in the Workplace

For many of us, our co-workers are like a second family. We commiserate over lunch in the break room. We celebrate birthdays and personal milestones together, and we even sneak out of the office for extended midday coffee runs.

Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Watching a co-worker struggle with substance abuse in the workplace can be incredibly tough. It’s natural to experience a host of emotions including frustration, anger, disappointment, fear and worry for your co-worker’s well-being. While much of the focus may be on how to best help your co-worker to enter treatment, graduating from a substance abuse program is just the first step to recovery.

Returning to the workplace after completing a treatment program can be just as challenging for both you and your co-worker.

Return to Work is Important for Recovering Addicts

Many substance abuse treatment programs, including Chapters Capistrano in Orange County, recommend a return to the workplace as a healthy part of recovery. According to Chapters, returning to work provides a structured routine, stimulates the mind, offers sober socialization opportunities, and provides individuals in recovery with purpose. Work builds new skill sets and helps individuals find value in themselves again.

But even with these benefits, returning to work after addiction treatment can still be a stressful and challenging experience for a newly sober individual.

How to Best Support Co-workers in Recovery

Even the best-intended support can go awry and end up causing a negative response in your co-worker, or worse, land you in hot water with your company’s HR department. Remember, you are not your co-worker’s therapist or sponsor, nor should you be. However, should you wish to play a supportive role in your co-worker’s recovery, it’s important to do so positively and constructively.

You can help support your co-worker’s recovery process by doing the following:

Respect Privacy

With substance abuse in the workplace, confidentiality comes first. Even if you were involved in an intervention on your co-worker’s behalf, they may not wish to discuss their treatment program or recovery with you – and that’s okay. Your co-worker is under no obligation to speak about this experience with you. They may feel embarrassed or be nervous about how others will judge them, or simply feel it is not appropriate to bring up a personal matter in the workplace.

Let your co-worker know you’re happy they’re back and you’re available to listen – anytime. Beyond that, follow their lead when it comes to discussing their substance abuse in the workplace and addiction treatment– never force a conversation.

Welcome Your Co-worker Back into the Fold

A lot can change in the office in just one or two months. Did your team finally land that big client? Did you crash and burn on a big proposal or have an awkward client luncheon that’s now a running office joke? Did a new admin assistant join the front desk?

Fill your co-worker in on both the big project changes as well as the harmless “office talk” that will help them feel like an essential part of the team again.

Expect Your Co-worker to be Different

Sure, you may realize that you two won’t be grabbing beers after work again. But keep in mind that your co-worker’s changes go beyond lifestyle habits. Addiction can heavily affect an individual’s personality and behaviors. Embracing a sober life means exploring a whole new personality.

Respect the place they’re at in their journey of self-discovery and offer appropriate sober activities. For example, if you always grabbed drinks after work to blow off steam, suggest hitting a spin class or yoga practice together instead.

Watch for Red Flags

A relapse doesn’t have to mean a full-blown return to substance abuse in the workplace. By staying alert for red flags, you can reach out to your co-worker and their supervisor about the additional support they may need to get back on track.

Common relapse red flags in the workplace include a consistent pattern of tardiness or early departures, increasingly implausible excuses, poor quality of work, blowing off projects or waiting until the last minute and forgetting work commitments or missing meetings.


Supporting a friend or loved one through aftercare and recovery after experiencing substance abuse in the workplace is not easy. Obviously, this process is made more complicated by the workplace. Even though your co-workers can feel like a second family, you still must comply with your company’s HR policy regarding addiction in the workplace and an employee’s right to privacy.

Additionally, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employee may take medical leave without providing specific details, as long as they’ve received a professional diagnosis. Let your co-worker know you’re an ally and ready to help navigate the challenges of sober workplace life.

Drugs Image via Shutterstock

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Brian Hughes Brian is a seasoned digital marketing expert who loves to write about subjects that help small businesses grow their brands and increase their rankings online. He accomplishes this through his agency Integrity Marketing & Consulting, which he founded in 2011.

One Reaction
  1. Acceptance can go a long way. Find a way to love and understand rather than treat him or her as someone who has an illness that needs to depend on someone. The right degree of help and privacy does the trick.