How Employers Can Address Employee Drug Use with an Intervention Strategy

published Oct 20, 2022
3 min read

Substance abuse and addiction affect employees of all different demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and can greatly interfere with professional performance. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 70% of people with a substance use disorder are employed in the U.S.

If an employee is dealing with a substance use disorder involving alcohol or drugs, it can cost the company expensive errors, injuries, and other mishaps that can occur while someone is under the influence.

It is important that human resources be made aware of any mental or physical health issues that can affect an employee’s ability to perform their job, and have policies in place that protects the company’s liability and the employee’s safety and confidentiality.

Understanding the Progression of Addiction and its Effects

The nature of addiction is progressive, and the longer it continues the more evident the signs and consequences become. In the first of the 4 stages of alcoholism, also known as the pre-alcoholic stage, someone might be mildly abusing substances to cope with stress from work or at home. 

The pre-alcoholic stage will almost inevitably progress to early alcoholism, middle alcoholism, and late alcoholism, at which point alcohol hijacks the mind and wreaks havoc on one’s ability to function at work or other aspects of life. 

The same progression applies to drug abuse and addiction, including prescription or illegal drugs. Someone may have been prescribed a narcotic or other controlled substance and began to abuse their prescription, or what started out as recreational use of a drug turned into a habit that has spiraled out of control. 


Educating and Training Supervisors on Identifying Substance Abuse 

The warning signs of addiction vary depending on the individual employee and the severity of their condition. For employees who work from home, it can be more difficult to identify warning signs, but there are still some behaviors that are challenging to hide for employees, even in virtual workspaces. 

Managers, supervisors, and people in similar roles are responsible for noticing any unusual or suspicious behavior in the workplace and addressing any issues or concerns as they arise. 

The following behaviors and patterns can be red flags of substance abuse:

  • Long, unexplained absences from work
  • Frequent sick days
  • Chronic fatigue, exhaustion, or drowsiness at all times of the workday
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Frequent conflict with co-workers and supervisors
  • Frequently coming into work late or leaving early
  • Often smelling strongly of alcohol or strange chemical odors
  • Financial difficulties
  • Decreased productivity and quality of performance
  • Erratic, unpredictable, compulsive behaviors
  • Apparent lack of personal hygiene and self-care

Physical signs of substance abuse include:

  • Sudden and significant weight loss
  • Sunken eyes
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Discoloration of skin
  • Evidence of marks or bruises
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Shakiness, tremors
  • Dental issues
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Intervening and Addressing Substance Abuse 

Intervention in the form of confrontation can be a high-risk approach, especially with an employee whose mental health has declined from substance abuse. When a manager or supervisor feels the need to intervene in an employee that may have a substance use disorder, doing so requires tact and discretion. 

To prevent an intervention at work from backfiring, the approach should be as non-confrontational as possible. It is crucial that the employee not be made to feel threatened or intimidated, as this can trigger raw emotional reactions.

Involving Human Resources

Human resources are the designated department in most organizations to handle a variety of employment-related issues, including the personal health matters of employees.

If an employee is dealing with a substance use disorder involving alcohol or drugs, they may be too ashamed, embarrassed, or fearful of losing a job to reach out for help from the right sources. Having an HR policy in place that enforces confidentiality of personal information can help to break down the barriers to transparency and communication. 

Implementing and Enforcing a Substance Abuse Policy

Having drug policies in place and keeping employees educated on the details of the policy is good insurance in case there are issues that arise from employees using drugs in the workplace. 

Although federal laws of employment do not require private companies to maintain a drug and substance-free work environment, it is required of federal contractors and grantees. 

Employees should be made aware of the consequences of using drugs or being impaired while at work and updated every time the policy changes — even slightly. This protects the company from being sued if an employee should claim that they were unaware of the company’s drug policies and disciplinary actions. 

Helping an Employee Get Treatment

Per the American Disabilities Act, any employee with a mental health disorder, including substance use disorder, is entitled to seek and receive treatment for addiction without the consequences of being terminated from employment. 

Anyone can fall victim to addiction, even the most responsible and hardworking professionals. If an employee is having mental health and substance abuse issues, it is essential that they get into treatment as soon as possible.

Employers can help by encouraging employees with any substance abuse issues to notify HR of their situation so that they can get the treatment needed to resume working to the very best of their ability.