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What to Do When a Colleague Is Addicted

While it may seem like having a drug or alcohol addiction may make it impossible to hold down a job, a large number of people who struggle with this disease are employed. In fact, the National Safety Council reports that an estimated 8.6% of adults who are employed have a substance use disorder.1

When an employee is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, there can be serious negative effects for that person’s health and career, the organization, and the safety of the workplace. If they are intoxicated at work, it can, in some situations, be physically hazardous for them and their coworkers.

If someone at your workplace is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, it can be a tricky path to navigate, whether you are a manager or a peer, and there are several factors to consider when considering how to proceed. However, it is important to address the issue sooner rather than later—the longer you let it go, the worse it will likely become, and the more severe the consequences may be. This guide will help you know what to look for and provide some tips on how to move forward.

Is My Colleague Abusing Drugs or Alcohol?

There are certain changes in behavior, appearance, and job performance that may be indicative of drug or alcohol abuse, but it is important not to automatically jump to this conclusion, especially at the first sight of these signs. It is better to monitor the situation over time and avoid trying to diagnose your coworker.

Here are some things you might start to notice:2,3,4,5

  • Performance inconsistency that may look like drastic fluctuations from one day to the next.
  • An increase in mistakes and/or carelessness on the job.
  • Changes in attendance such as utilizing more sick days, coming in late, or frequently calling in sick at the last minute.
  • Apparent decline in personal appearance or hygiene.
  • Increasing isolation.
  • Changes in attitude and interpersonal relationships which could manifest as mood lability or conflict with coworkers.
  • Failure to complete tasks or meet deadlines.
  • Sleeping at work.
  • Bloodshot or glassy eyes.
  • An increasingly negative perception of work, or seeming more irritable especially in the mornings, after the weekends, or following holidays.

Are You Enabling a Colleague?

Substance-abusing employee at work

It may be difficult for an individual to confess to struggling with addiction due to fears of repercussions or judgment, but the workplace often enables their silence. Coworkers or supervisors may ignore the signs and make excuses for their behavior in order to protect them, 5 especially if they consider them a friend. If you find yourself covering for or lying for a colleague, you may be enabling rather than helping.5

Supervisors may avoid intervening for fear of having a difficult conversation with a staff member that has the potential to become confrontational. However, avoidance may lead to problems that extend out the entire staff. When supervisors enable an employee, it can greatly impact team morale, especially if other employees feel that they have to pick up the slack or that the work environment is being disrupted and nothing is being done about it.

People often don’t want to be responsible for someone getting in trouble or losing their job, and they may tend to avoid confrontation in general. However, it is important to remember that taking action can help your colleague in the long run and prevent any serious accidents from occurring at your workplace.

Tips for Peers

If you suspect a colleague has been abusing alcohol or other drugs, remember it is not your job to try and diagnose a substance abuse disorder. Diagnoses are best left to medical or mental health professionals.

The first thing to do is start documenting specific situations when you suspect your colleague is intoxicated or engaging in suspicious behavior. Make sure you are being objective and record your observation of the individual’s performance as it relates to work in detail with dates and times.5 You can look to your company’s internal policies for guidance on what steps to take or confidentially share your concerns with a supervisor.

Should your colleague leave work to attend treatment, they may return with some apprehension about how their coworkers will view them. You can help by being supportive, avoiding gossip, and listening without judgment.

Tips for Supervisors

Boss and employee conversation

  • As a supervisor, you have a duty to protect the safety of your employees and the work environment. Make sure from the start your employees are aware of any relevant substance abuse policies.
  • As soon as you suspect alcohol or drug abuse or notice changes in an employee’s work performance, begin to document everything including date, time, detailed observations, any actions taken, and employee responses.4
  • Your focus should be on safety and job performance and the employee’s responsibility to meet company standards, and your response should match the level of concern. In other words, if the employee is causing an immediate danger or safety concern, take immediate action (e.g., restricting them from performing certain duties such as patient care or operating machinery).
  • Before confronting them, you may wish to meet with a human resources representative or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) manager to discuss the most appropriate ways to address the situation. Even as a supervisor, it is not your job to diagnose an employee’s addiction. Your focus should be on the way the issue is affecting the employee’s performance and the workplace overall.
  • Focus on objective data, facts, and observations versus subjective speculations or assumptions. Approaching an employee is not like approaching a loved one. The talk should be performance-based and professional, and you should be ready with specific details and instances to discuss. Conduct the meeting in private and make sure you respect the confidential nature of the meeting. Inform the employee of the problem and discuss clear expectations and associated consequences.
  • It is common for individuals struggling with addiction to deny having a problem. While your employee may indeed be abusing drugs or alcohol, don’t discount the possibility that something else may be the cause of their performance issues. For example, excessive absenteeism or physical symptoms could be due to another medical concern. You can still address the performance issues and set targets for them to improve regardless of the reason they are underperforming. You can let them know they have the EAP or your company’s human resources department as a resource for whatever personal or medical issues they are struggling with in their lives.

How Do I Deal with Employee Leave?

If you have questions about how to handle employee leave, you can always consult your human resources department for more information. If the employee is going to receive formal treatment, they may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, it cannot be used for absences resulting from substance use (being too intoxicated or hungover to go to work).2

Your employee may also be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so it is important to make sure you are operating within its scope. This may include providing reasonable accommodations for a recovering employee, such as a modified work schedule to attend 12-step meetings or a leave of absence to allow the employee to seek treatment, for instance.6

Your human resources department can provide specific guidance with regard to state and federal laws and when you can terminate an employee’s employment, but in most cases you can fire an individual for substance use in cases where you are making a disciplinary decision according to policies and job performance.6

If your employee does attend treatment for substance abuse, you can create a return to work agreement that specifies post-treatment expectations and the consequences for failing to meet them, 2 which may include termination. It’s important that the employee’s efforts (or lack thereof) to meet these expectations are documented clearly and objectively.

What Type of Treatment Can I Suggest?

Sometimes people may hesitate to confront an addicted employee because they worry the individual will have to participate in an inpatient treatment program which can be costly.

While this is an appropriate option for some, there are various levels of care that correspond to the individual’s level of addiction and their current treatment needs. For example, other recommendations can include residential treatment, intensive outpatient programs, outpatient therapy, and community support such as 12-step meetings.

If your company offers insurance benefits, the employee will likely have some coverage for treatment. Filling out an insurance benefits verification form can help you determine what coverage there may be. Again, you can always consult with your company’s EAP or HR department if needed.

Some programs such as the one at Greenhouse Treatment Center offer an integrated approach that offers several levels of care, amenities that help promote a healing environment, and evidence-based practices from qualified professionals. At a facility that offers a full continuum of care, staff can make an assessment of the individual as to which level of care will be an appropriate starting point and how long they should be in treatment.

Why It’s Important to Take Action

Substance abuse in the workplace has the potential to negatively impact both the employee and the people they work with, whether co-workers or clients. The office is usually the last place where the impact of a person’s substance use will become apparent, meaning that the problem may be much worse than it seems from your perspective. 5

Aside from the physical dangers related to health and injuries, there are the negative consequences of lost productivity and a dent in the company’s culture or reputation. Terminating an employee can also be costly in terms of lost expertise and the time and money it takes to find and train a new employee. Ultimately, addressing addiction in the workplace is the best course of action for both the individual and the organization.5 Intervening early may prevent the employee from losing their job and/or license, may help avoid a severe drop in morale, and may help to prevent accidents and injuries.2

References:

  1. National Safety Council. (2019). Implications of drug use for employers.
  2. National Business Group on Health. (2009). An employers guide to workplace substance abuse: strategies and treatment recommendations.
  3. Office of Personnel Management. Work-Life reference materials: Alcoholism in the workplace: A handbook for supervisors.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Drug-free workplace toolkit.
  5. Washington Health Professional Services (2016). A guide for assisting colleagues who demonstrate impairment in the workplace.
  6. United States Commission on Civil Rights. (n.d.). Sharing the Dream: Is the ADA Accommodating All?
About The Contributor
Amanda Lautieri
Senior Web Content Editor, American Addiction Centers
Amanda Lautieri is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for Greenhouse Treatment Center. She holds a bachelor's degree and has reviewed thousands of medical articles on substance abuse and... Read More