There’s no sugarcoating it: addressing substance abuse in the workplace is one of the biggest challenges a supervisor can face. Realizing that an employee is struggling with addiction can be an incredibly difficult experience. It’s natural to feel a whole host of emotions ranging from feelings of betrayal and shock to anger and sadness. For many of us, our co-workers are our second families, so it’s natural to want to offer support any way you can. Unfortunately, due to workplace policies and privacy restrictions, you’ll need to take some different factors into consideration beyond simply staging an intervention.
I’ve written before about the challenges of supporting a co-worker who is returning to the workplace after completing a treatment program. But before you can support your co-worker’s recovery, many of us face the challenge of helping our colleagues recognize that they are struggling with addiction in the first place. Remember, even though you may feel a strong moral obligation to reach out to your employee, if you do not respect their privacy or violate a company policy, you could land yourself in legal hot water. Before talking to an employee, keep the following in mind:
Addressing Substance Abuse in the Workplace
1. Know the warning signs of addiction in the workplace.
Sure, you may not be out partying at night with your employee and witnessing excessive drug or alcohol consumption, but the after effects of this ongoing substance abuse are still evident in the workplace. Warning signs of addiction include:
- Absenteeism and tardiness
- Constant excuses for turning in work late, missing meetings, etc. that become increasingly unbelievable
- Unexplained physical changes, such as sudden weight gain or loss, bloodshot eyes, a change in personal grooming
- Sudden mood swings and irritability
- Decreased productivity or an inability to complete simple tasks
2. Document specific changes.
If you are participating in an intervention on behalf of an employee, prepare in advance by jotting down specific changes. While saying, “John comes in with a hangover a lot” or “Kelly’s performance has declined” may be accurate, these are also pretty general statements. In their drug intervention guide, the addiction specialists at Ridgefield Recovery recommend citing specific evidence of change or sharing anecdotes during an intervention. Maybe John had such a bad hangover one morning that he ended up sleeping through a major meeting at his desk. Or maybe Kelly missed two big client deadlines and turned in a report filled with typos and data mistakes. Jotting down the date and a few notes about what happened will also create a timeline with clear data you can refer to should HR have questions about your employee’s performance.
3. Know your workplace policies and your employee’s rights.
Employers have a right to drug test their employees and fire them if the employee fails the test and violates company policy. However, if an employee chooses to enter a treatment program, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will protect the employee from being fired for past errors or poor job performance. ADA does not protect employees who continue to use drugs or alcohol in violation of company policy. Not all employees understand that they are protected from being fired if they choose to enter rehab. When talking to your employee, remind them that you are here to help and reassure them that they will not lose their job. Additionally, for employees who are worried about taking an extended leave of absence from work, remind them that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to 12 weeks within a 12-month period, which can include a substance abuse treatment program.
Substance abuse in the workplace is a serious issue, with alcohol abuse alone contributing to 500 million lost workdays each year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That said, you cannot “force” an employee into a substance abuse treatment program. If you believe an employee needs help, consult with your HR department to avoid violating the employee’s privacy and your workplace guidelines. If you do participate in an intervention, refer to your notes about how the employee’s addiction has affected their workplace performance. Remind your employee you are on their side and here to help.
Alcoholism Photo via Shutterstock