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Addiction in Employees: How to Recognize the Signs

Drug use in the US is reaching prolific levels. Estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that a staggering 21.5 million Americans battled a substance use disorder at an estimated cost of $740 billion annually in crime, lost work productivity and health care in 2014.

Drug abusers are no longer the outliers in society; rather they could be the person sitting next to you on the train, behind you at the checkout counter, or even in the next cubicle. Indeed, drug users are perfectly capable of holding down – and even being high performing – in any number of jobs. However, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to the dangers of drug use, or that you as a business owner are not required to help out.

But if drug users are walking among us, how can you tell them apart from non-users? Your first clue may simply be a change in the norm, that perhaps something is “off” with your friend in accounting of late. Of course, if it’s a new employee, identifying these changes may be much trickier because you don’t have a good grasp of their baseline, but it’s not impossible. Typically, substance users exhibit similar signs and symptoms. Behaviors that may – but certainly don’t definitively – indicate substance misuse include:

  • Unexpected absences from work, including excessive sick days or vacation days, are taken with little or no notice.
  • Chronic lateness missed appointments or failures to show up to meetings at the agreed upon time.
  • Big swings in work performance – they’re either nailing it or falling flat, sometimes on the same day or even among aspects of the same project
  • Increased mistakes, oversights or “dropping the ball” in an employee that has always had a keen attention to detail.
  • Increased time taken on menial or run-of-the-mill tasks that the employee would normally be able to knock out fairly effortlessly.
  • Increased confusion, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, meeting deadlines, or following instructions.
  • Strained relationships with coworkers that can include angry outbursts, misunderstandings, criticism, and inability to follow-through on quotas or deadlines
  • A sudden decline in a person’s appearance or personal hygiene
  • Wearing long-sleeves or otherwise covering up when it isn’t seasonally appropriate, potentially in an effort to hide marks at injection sites.
  • Frequent and lengthy trips to the bathroom, parking lot or other private areas where drugs may be stashed or consumed.

As we noted, none of these are slam-dunk, definitive signs that your employee is taking drugs. Rather, these bullet points represent a series of small but perceptible shifts in an employee’s behavior that may be indicative of a problem and likely warrant further investigation.

So, what do you do if you do think there is a problem? As a business owner, there are several approaches, each of which are important to consider:

Can you drug test your employee?
Several states have restrictions on employee drug testing (full list of states and state rules). However, in states where it is permissible, your company should already have established a written drug test company policy that authorizes you to send them for periodic drug testing. It should also be noted that certain industries – such as transportation – have substance abuse policies that override state mandates as intoxication could pose a threat to the broader public.

What should a written drug policy include?
In an ideal world, a strong written drug policy should clearly outline expectations for the following:

  • A definition of substance abuse.
  • Who is covered by the policy and/or program?
  • Under what circumstances will drug/alcohol testing be performed.
  • What are employee rights as they pertain to confidentiality?
  • An outline of any educational opportunities for employees regarding substance abuse
  • Employee and supervisors training in identifying impaired behavior and other signs of substance abuse.
  • An outline of how to respond to suspected drug misuse.
  • Provisions for assisting chronic substance abuse.
  • An outline of potential disciplinary actions.

Can employees get help in the workplace?
“Work can be an important and effective place to address alcoholism and other drug issues by establishing or promoting programs focused on improving health,” according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). One important source of support in the workplace is that of wellness programs, which can play a role in preventing substance misuse in the workplace. Elements of such a program should include factual information on the harmful effects of drug and alcohol use; information on the appropriate use of these substances (particularly opioid drugs); and information on how to seek treatment confidentially.

Should we offer an employee assistance program?
According to the NCADD, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is “the most effective way to address alcohol and drug problems in the workplace.” Specifically, EAPs are designed to provide confidential access to short-term counseling, assessment, and referral of employees with alcohol and drug abuse problems, emotional and mental health problems, marital and family problems, financial problems, dependent care concerns, and other personal problems that can affect the employee’s work.

While this type of service isn’t typically available to small business owners, it can be made available if you partner with a Professional Employer Organization (PEO). Benefits of such programming include decreased workplace accidents, reduced employee theft, reduced employee turnover, increased productivity and increased employee morale. Further, companies that offer this benefit typically report decreased cost of insurances, such as workers compensation.

Can you terminate an employee for substance abuse?
Once again, this very sticky question should have been addressed and thoroughly vetted in your employee manual. In general, unless a contract states otherwise, most employees are considered to be “at will” and can thus be terminated for violation of legal reasons, provided they are not considered discriminatory. We cannot emphasize enough that you need to have steps in place – in writing – that dictate the course of action for suspected or confirmed drug abuse.

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