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How to identify workplace drug, alcohol abuse

America prides itself on being a hard-working country. We cite our work ethic like a code of honor. We show up early. We stay late. Our workers have created innovative products, services and revolutionary ideas. They’ve put computers into every home and a man on the moon.

They’ve also done a lot of drugs.

Drug abuse in the workplace, as well as alcohol abuse in the workplace, isn’t as isolated an event as you might wish it were. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health administration, 68.9 percent of all active drug users are employed.

68.9% of drug users are employed

You may argue that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean they show up to work drunk or high, or that they’re using on the job. Yet 10 to 20 percent of all workers who die on the job test positive for drugs, alcohol or both. In Tennessee alone, one third of all employees are aware of drug sales at work.

die on the job

If you think such problems are confined to specific industries, think again. In New York City for example, white collar employees in traditional office jobs are increasingly showing up in emergency rooms for overdoses from Oxycontin. Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem among white collar workers. They don’t need to find a dealer on the street to feed their habit. They simply doctor-shop among the hundreds of available doctors in a large metropolitan area like New York.

Drug use at work remains a problem no matter what industry you work in. You may even suspect that someone at your workplace is dealing or using drugs. Let’s take a look at the challenges related to workplace drug use, company policies, prevention and how to help a coworker who’s struggling.

Drug and Alcohol Policies in the Workplace

workplace drug policies

All companies have either an explicit or implied policy in place forbidding employees from engaging in illegal activities in the workplace. This includes using illegal drugs. Most companies have policies prohibiting the use of alcohol or working while under the influence of substances, including prescriptions that may impair your judgment or ability to complete your daily job duties.

drug policies

A typical workplace drug and alcohol policy sets forth the conditions under which employees may be tested for drug use, the reasons why such tests are necessary and any policies pertaining to drug and alcohol use, abuse, identification and treatment.

The Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace recommends establishing a corporate-wide drug abuse policy that includes:

  1. The reasons why the company established the policy
  2. What exactly is expected of employees
  3. The consequences of policy violations

By stating each of these three things explicitly, companies empower both their managers and employees with clear, unambiguous guidelines about drug use in the workplace. Knowing why policies exist, what your company expects of you and what will happen if you break the rules makes it clear that smoking a joint at work or coming to work high isn’t acceptable.

Problems With Drug Use in the Workplace

problems with drugs at work

Drug use at work isn’t a harmless action. While you may think your actions don’t hurt anyone, they hurt the people around you, the company you work for and the owners or investors in the company.

Drug and alcohol use in the workplace can result in:

  • Higher absenteeism rates: Feeling hung over or too jittery or sleepy to go to work can make you call in sick more often than your non-using coworkers. Higher absenteeism reduces your productivity and puts more work on other people.
  • Poor job performance: When you’re drunk or high, it’s hard to focus on your work. You may be unable to do complex tasks, or you can make a lot of mistakes because your brain is too fogged to notice them. Sometimes you may be so obsessed with your next high that you can’t focus on anything but scoring another hit. Drug use at work can lead to subpar work. The longer you continue using drugs at work, the more you are at risk of being reprimanded or losing your job.
  • Injuries or death: Workers who regularly use heavy machinery and equipment are always at risk of accidents on the job, but operating this equipment while drunk or high compounds your risk of hurting yourself and others. Driving under the influence isn’t just illegal — it’s also dangerous, so if you drive for a living or use your vehicle as part of your job, it’s a dangerous situation. Other risks include using equipment like power saws, drills and other tools, as well as working with factory tools in manufacturing settings. It takes just a momentary lapse in judgment to make a mistake that can seriously injure yourself, a coworker or even an innocent bystander. Worse still, depending on the situation, someone can die. Nobody wants that to happen, but it can happen, especially when you’re working with machinery while under the influence.

subpar work

Using drugs and alcohol at work not only affects your work, but also those around you. Other effects of working under the influence or using drugs at work include:

  • Poor relationships: Irritability, uneven behavior, inappropriate behavior — these may all be part of drug use and abuse, with many other symptoms besides. Your mood swings and irritability can make you quarrelsome, which leads to arguments with coworkers, managers and even customers. Showing up at work high means you can’t forge good working relationships with others.
  • Higher incidences of theft: It’s sad, but many people steal from their employers to pay for their habit. Cash gets stolen, but credit cards are also abused and big office supplies like toner cartridges and cell phones are stolen and sold to pay for drugs and alcohol.
  • Lowered morale: Coworkers sense when someone isn’t pulling their fair share of the work. The sense that you’re slacking off while they have to cover for you can build resentment and cause overall morale to drop.

drug mood swings

Working under the influence leads to a lot of broken relationships, bad habits and a tarnished reputation that can follow you until you enter recovery. You can regain your sense of dignity and rebuild your reputation once you recover from your substance abuse, but it takes time.

Identifying Substance Abuse in the Workplace

 Managers and coworkers are often the first people to spot potential substance abuse in the workplace. Drug and alcohol abuse leave telltale signs behind. Here’s what to look for if you suspect drugs and alcohol in the workplace:

absent from work

  • Unexplained absences: Employees may be missing from their desks for long periods of time or gone from the worksite without reason, such as running an errand or going to lunch.
  • Chronic lateness: Chronic lateness is another sign of a possible drug or alcohol problem. You may notice a pattern to the lateness too, such as someone who is always very late on a Monday, possibly because they spent the whole weekend partying.
  • Mood swings: You probably know your employees well. Someone who is calm most of the time may suddenly become angry or experience unpredictable mood swings. Changes in behavior that can’t be accounted for from illness or personal stress may be due to substance abuse.
  • Frequent illness: Sniffling nose, red, runny eyes — it may not be from allergies. Someone who complains of frequent migraine headaches or colds may actually be covering up drug withdrawal. Other frequent illnesses may point to a compromised immune system, which is characteristic of many long-term substance abusers.
  • Poor appearance: Changes in hygiene or professional appearance should also be noted. Poor personal hygiene is often a sign of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Long sleeves in hot weather: Wearing long sleeves or jackets all the time may hide needle tracks on the arms of some users. If it’s uncharacteristic of the employee, or their job doesn’t call for business attire at all times, it may be a sign of a problem when taken into consideration with other signs.
  • Mysterious accidents: Employees may show up at work with strange cuts, bruises, scrapes, marks on their arms or other signs of accidents or drug use.
  • Paranoia or over-reacting: Managers may notice that an employee over-reacts to every little thing. A simple typo in a document that you ask someone to fix results in a fit of rage or tears. Fights erupt between coworkers over accusations of stealing staplers. If it’s unjustified and uncharacteristic, it’s time to take note of the person’s symptoms and see what’s troubling them. It could be family stress, illness or on-the-job substance abuse.

Handling Suspected Substance Abuse in the Workplace

 It can be tricky to handle suspected substance abuse in the workplace. If you don’t handle it, someone could get hurt. If you do handle it badly, you could risk someone being angry with you or worse: a potential lawsuit. It’s unlikely, but it can happen.

If you suspect a fellow coworker of substance abuse:

  1. Document any evidence to support your suspicions. Be sure to note only observable workplace behaviors.
  2. Ask your manager or the human resources manager to meet privately.
  3. Express your concerns to the HR manager or your line manager, and show them the list of evidence you’ve collected.
  4. Keep your thoughts to yourself and let the HR director or your manager handle it from there. Both confrontation with the other person and gossip only hurt the substance abuser and may keep them from seeking help.

Managers must handle potential drug abuse problems at work carefully. You cannot openly accuse someone of using drugs at work or coming to work high. Instead, if you suspect that drugs or alcohol are impacting an employee’s productivity or behavior, you must document the specific workplace behaviors that are undesirable, regardless of what is causing them and find a way to offer help. Managers should consider the following steps:

  • Talk to your company’s HR department: The HR department can advise you of any specific procedures you should follow to document the problem.
  • Assemble a team: It’s best to work with a small team of people when you are helping someone on your staff who may have a drug or alcohol problem. This team can include someone from HR, someone from your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one and your manager too.
  • Prepare and document: You must document every problem with the employee in a neutral, objective way. Only observable behaviors such as tardiness, missed deadlines, mistakes in their work, etc. should be documented. Don’t try to read into the behavior — just note the date, time, place, behavior, problem and any witnesses. Your human resources manager can tell you the best way to document the materials needed to keep track of the problems. This is both for your employee’s benefit and for legal protection for your company.
  • Meet with the subordinate: Meet with your team member. Express concern only for the work problems you’ve noticed. Mention specific examples such as, “John, I’ve noticed that you have been late three days out of five for the past two weeks. What’s going on?” Let the subordinate explain what’s going on. Give them the opportunity to share their side of the story with the team.
  • State your expectations: Make it clear what you expect from the employee, and set a deadline by which the behaviors must be addressed. Be clear about any potential consequences too.
  • Offer help: At this point, the company’s EAP representative should step in and offer their services. Emphasize the confidential nature of the services and the offer of help should the employee wish to participate.
  • Express support: End the meeting by expressing support for the employee and the hope that the undesirable behaviors will change.

meet with team member

If your manager is the one you think is doing drugs, it can put you in a tough spot. Your best recourse is the human resources department. Again, documentation is essential. Make private notes on what you’ve observed, with an emphasis on specific behaviors that are impacting your manager’s work and ability to do their job. Then meet privately with someone in HR. They can take it from there.

Special Situations: When Being High Puts Lives at Risk

 Most offices can handle employee drug use using the steps outlined above. But there are some professions where one single mistake can put lives at risk. Healthcare professionals, police, firefighters, teachers, daycare workers, military personnel — jobs in which someone cares for the sick or vulnerable, or where someone carries firearms, are especially dangerous for anyone who is drunk or high.

In these instances, you’ve got to make a judgment call about whether or not immediate action needs to be taken. If someone’s health or safety is on the line, call in a supervisor, manager or other professional to help you.

Creating a Supportive, Drug-Free Workplace

Creating a safe, supportive and drug-free workplace begins at the top. Management must be committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all employees, and that includes help for those suffering from substance abuse.

Preventing workplace substance abuse includes:

  • Creating a clear policy on substance abuse challenges in the workplace
  • Hiring and screening applicants, with drug testing policies in place if applicable
  • Carrying health insurance policies for employees that includes adequate mental health and substance abuse coverage
  • Including an EAP for help, and ensuring confidentiality to all employees who use the EAP
  • Writing specific policies that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines on providing people with time off for recovery from illness, including substance abuse

Companies that include drug testing as part of their hiring and employment procedures may need to have additional guidelines that include:

  • Pre-employment drug testing
  • Random drug testing
  • Post-accident drug testing in the event an employee is in an accident while operating company vehicles or machinery
  • Consequences of failed drug tests
  • Appeals processes and procedures

All companies that implement substance abuse prevention policies should consult their company’s attorneys to make sure that policies and procedures comply with all state and federal laws.

Supporting a Drug-Free Environment

It’s important to have policies and procedures in place for handling substance abuse challenges at work. But it’s just as important to have great people in place who know how to help others who may be suffering from substance abuse challenges.

Creating a corporate culture that emphasizes a substance-free environment begins with the management team. Your managers should offer a productive and safe environment in which workers feel empowered with the knowledge and tools they need to get their jobs done.

Workplaces that offer a comfortable, friendly and supportive environment go a long way towards sustaining a drug-free environment. Stress is almost always part of a workplace environment, but minimizing excess stress by ensuring that people have adequate support and time to do their work is important.

Another step you can take to support substance abuse prevention in the workplace is to make sure you allow anyone who needs time off for counseling, recovery work or other mental health challenges gets it. The American mindset tends to look down on anyone suffering from problems, especially if those problems get in the way of work. The Puritan work ethic kicks in.

People who have problems need help and support, not a scolding for not being productive enough. You can help by making sure they know you are okay with them getting the help they need and rebalancing their workload during times when they may need some time away for treatment.

Workplace substance abuse remains a problem in many places, but you can take steps to prevent it. And if it shows up at your workplace, there are tools, resources and help available. Everyone deserves to work in an environment that’s safe and free from substance abuse. Make it happen at your workplace by using these tips and supporting people in recovery.

Recovery at JourneyPure Emerald Coast

If you or someone you work with needs help with a substance abuse problem, JourneyPure Emerald Coast is the place to start. Located in Florida, we offer medically supervised detox to help you safely withdraw from drugs or alcohol.

The support you’ll receive at JourneyPure Emerald Coast is incredible. From the moment you arrive to the moment you leave our facility, there’s someone here who understands what you are going through. Medical and counseling staff are always available if you need them.

Your treatment plan includes a structured daily schedule with individual and group counseling, 12-step meetings, holistic and experiential therapy and other forms of recovery work. The structured program helps you learn how to navigate daily life again without the blur of drugs or alcohol in your system. It has worked well for many people.

We offer treatment for substance abuse as well as mental health challenges and can help you recover no matter how long you have been addicted to drugs or alcohol.

JourneyPure Emerald Coast is a place where you can focus on getting better again. Your recovery program can begin with us now. Call us today at (800) 493-5253.

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