By Ioana Cozma

Updated: 08 May 2024 & medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon

Addiction is a multifaceted matter that affects individuals at a granular and macro level, profoundly impacting their personal and professional relationships. This article delves into the various ways in which addiction in the workplace manifests and the steps employers and colleagues can take to address it.

Helping Employees With Addiction

How does addiction affect the workplace?

Addiction in the workplace has harmful consequences. In the long run, it may cause decreased productivity because individuals struggling with addiction may experience difficulties in concentration, memory, and decision-making.[1] As a result, their work performance declines, with a rippling effect on the team’s productivity in terms of project timelines and overall workflow.

People with addiction also pose safety risks to themselves and others. For example, prescription medicine may cause fatigue and delayed reactions, so operating heavy machinery while abusing opioids may increase the risk of accidents.[2] Similarly, people with inhalant abuse disorder may put others in peril by breaking storage and health and safety procedures.

Addiction may also fuel interpersonal conflicts in the workplace, as individuals struggling with addiction might exhibit erratic behavior and mood swings or become unreliable in their interactions with colleagues.[3] This behavior can create tension, disrupt team dynamics, and hinder collaboration.

Moreover, addiction affects healthcare costs for employers. As substance abuse often leads to physical and mental health issues requiring higher healthcare utilization, employers may experience increased benefit claims and, therefore, insurance premiums.

Signs of substance abuse in employees

Recognizing the warning signs of substance abuse in employees helps managers address the issue early on with effective means of support. While the precise symptoms vary depending on the substance being abused, common indicators to consider include:

Changes in appearance

Employees struggling with substance abuse may exhibit noticeable changes in their physical appearance, such as bloodshot or glazed eyes, frequent smell of alcohol or drugs, unexplained weight loss or gain, poor personal hygiene, or ungroomed appearance.[4]

Decline in work performance

Substance abuse often leads to a decline in work performance. Employees may consistently miss deadlines, produce subpar work quality, have increased errors or accidents, or exhibit decreased motivation and concentration. Employers and colleagues may observe erratic behavior patterns that affect the individual’s ability to fulfill their job responsibilities effectively.[5]

Unpredictable behavior

Workers dealing with substance abuse may display depressive episodes, irritability, or aggression. They may seem more anxious, restless, or excessively tired during work hours. Conversely, they might also appear overly confident, with sudden shifts between extreme proactivity and severe depression.[5]

Additionally, employees may exhibit dishonesty, theft, and an accident rate higher than the average. As a result, employees struggling with substance abuse have deteriorating relationships with their colleagues.[5]

Frequent absenteeism

Attendance issues are a prevalent sign of addiction in the workplace. Individuals with substance use disorder may frequently call in sick, arrive late, or take unexplained time off. You may also note an increased tendency towards overall confusion about deadlines and tasks, as well as a lack of discipline.[5]

Financial problems

Substance abuse may cause financial difficulties, translating into requests for cash advances, continually borrowing money from colleagues, or persistent financial distress.

Physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of substance abuse depend on the drug or substance being taken. Frequent nosebleeds (in case of intranasal cocaine use), tremors, slurred speech, excessive sweating, and unexplained needle marks or bruises are important red flags.

How to help employees get treatment

Employers helping get addiction treatment has been proven to help employees mentally and socially, improving interpersonal work relationships, productivity, and absenteeism rates.[6]

Additionally, treating addiction in the workplace renders employers a significant return on investment (ROI). Employees with incomes of $45,000/year yield an approximate ROI of 23%, whereas employees with $60,000 annual salaries increase the ROI to 60%.[7]

For a full rundown on how to create a drug-free workplace, visit our Drug and Alcohol Resources for Employers page.

Here are some options to consider:

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

These work-based intervention programs offer counseling, treatment, referrals, and resources to assist people’s recovery at no cost to employers. Implementing EAPs can provide bespoke, targeted support to individuals, from face-to-face support to virtual counseling.[8]

Training and education

Organizing training sessions and workshops may raise awareness about addiction, its impact, and the available resources for support. Creating a stigma-free environment allows employers to feel more comfortable discussing their challenges and seeking professional help.[9]

Company culture

Developing policies emphasizing support rather than punishment may encourage employees to seek help without fear of losing their jobs. This inclusive company culture includes implementing reasonable accommodation measures for individuals in recovery, flexible work schedules, and providing access to support groups or counseling services. Celebrating sobriety milestones and ensuring confidentiality are also important.[9]

Drug testing

An employee drug screening program may ensure less addiction in the workplace, which is why approximately 58% of companies enforce pre-employment drug tests.[10]

Additionally, companies may perform random drug tests, though specific state laws direct these tests’ unfolding.

Helping colleagues

Helping colleagues with substance addiction requires compassion and tact. Firstly, employees should learn about substance addiction, its impact, and available resources to understand their colleague’s challenges and guide their approach.

Another key step is monitoring observable signs and behaviors that indicate substance abuse and noting specific incidents or patterns. This documentation is essential to organize appropriate interventions.

Employees should express concerns to their employer, following company policy. They may also provide information about resources such as employee assistance programs, counseling services, or local support groups.

Supporting through recovery

When talking with a colleague with substance abuse, use non-judgmental language and focus on expressing genuine care and willingness to help. Avoid accusations or confrontations, which may trigger defensiveness and resistance.

Be an active listener and allow individuals to express their thoughts and emotions without judgment. Validate their experiences and feelings, acknowledging their challenges to help them feel heard and understood.

Celebrate their recovery and sobriety milestones with your colleagues, as this positive reinforcement can boost their motivation and self-confidence. Additionally, avoid discussing their difficulties with other colleagues, and desist from spreading rumors.

You may also offer practical support when appropriate, such as assisting with daily tasks or providing resources for job opportunities or educational programs.

However, while caring support may have a positive impact, remember to set healthy, professional boundaries and seek assistance from HR or supervisory personnel if necessary.