Guide for Employers

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what Employers Need to Know About Substance Abuse

The average adult spends about 2,000 hours a year at work, so if they have a substance abuse problem, there’s a very good chance it will impact their performance and potentially cause friction in the workplace. This can create a dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous professional environment, and as an employer you have a responsibility to the individual and the company to address the situation.

More than 70% of Americans with substance abuse issues continue to remain “functioning” and are able to maintain their employment, according to a report by the Harvard Medical School. However, their addictions cost businesses and organizations an average of $81 billion in lost profits every year, because of drop-offs in productivity, high turnover rates, theft in the workplace, decreased quality of work and increased absenteeism. Employees who struggle with alcoholism, for example, miss 34% more work days than other workers, the report found.

It is important, however, to remember that it is not your responsibility as an employer to diagnose or treat an employee’s addiction – only to take action if the problem affects their performance and puts them or the company at risk. You should always be aware of your company’s policy on substance abuse, and if your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you should know the parameters of what assistance it provides.

If you have reason to suspect that an employee has a substance abuse problem, you should consult with your Human Resources department and EAP representative and discuss a plan for how to approach the situation. When you meet with the employee, consider these guidelines:

Signs that an employee may have a substance abuse problem

It is not always easy to recognize when an employee or coworker is addicted to drugs or alcohol. The symptoms of drug or alcohol misuse are not always clearly evident, and people who have a substance abuse problem often go to great lengths to hide their addiction, especially at work. Even so, there are sometimes signs that someone has a problem.

Job-related symptoms include:

Behavioral and physical symptoms include:

None of these signs alone necessarily signal that someone has a substance abuse problem, of course, but if you notice sudden changes in a person’s behavior and appearance, you should be concerned. If they have an addiction, it has likely been evident in their family and social life and they may be experiencing more personal and financial difficulties than they exhibit at work.

Frequently asked questions about employers and substance abuse

Can my company require drug tests? Consult with your HR department about local, state and federal laws, but in general, an employee can be tested for drugs if they exhibit unsafe behavior in a single instance or if they have a pattern of behavior that leads you to suspect they may be using drugs. You can also test if they are involved in an accident while at work.

Should I conduct an intervention? As an employer or supervisor, you should not try to conduct an intervention on your own. Talk to your HR department and EAP manager about whether a group of co-workers might want to hold an intervention with a colleague to express their concern and sadness in an effort to persuade that person to seek treatment for substance abuse.

Am I required to offer leave for substance abuse treatment? Employee leave is a complicated issue because it is governed by federal laws that stipulate how long an employee can be out, and for what reasons. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires that workers must be given up to 12 weeks off to deal with “serious health conditions” without fear of losing their job. This includes substance abuse, but they must prove they use the time to get professional treatment. Employees may also take disability leave to get help for substance abuse issues, but again, they must have documented evidence that they are using the time getting treatment for their addiction. In these cases, you should prepare a “return to work agreement” that documents the expectations of their treatment, the duration and the expectations for when and how they return to work.

What are the responsibilities of managers and co-workers? As a supervisor, you should monitor the work of anyone suspected of substance abuse and keep clear documentation of issues related to their performance and/or attendance. As a peer or co-worker, you may be torn between wanting to help someone and not wanting them to get in trouble. But you should never try to resolve the issue on your own; always bring your concerns to the attention of a supervisor. You may also consider contacting HR or your EAP manager anonymously.

Which professions are most likely to have substance abuse problems? Among the most high-risk occupations are health care professionals, which includes doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Studies show that up to 15% of health care workers will abuse or misuse drugs at some point in their life. Other high-risk jobs include restaurant workers (they are often constantly exposed to alcohol), law enforcement personnel (their job can put them in stressful, dangerous situations daily), and people in the farming, forestry and fishing industries (they are often in isolation for long periods of time).

Call Discovery Point today to find out more about how you can help your employees in need!

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