Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 | By JP Emerald Coast

drugs on a laptop

For decades, people with substance use disorder have been viewed by the public as individuals who are unable to function in their everyday lives. Today, however, there is more information about the disease of addiction, along with a better understanding of how it can present in different people. Part of the education that the public has obtained regarding substance use disorders is the realization that people with this condition can still appear functional even while grappling with addiction. This is especially true for those who suffer from addiction in the workplace. 

The American workforce is more than 155 million people strong. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 70% of individuals with a substance use disorder are employed and continue to maintain that employment. The cost that substance use disorders put on businesses and companies throughout the country is upwards of $81 billion per year. This is because of factors associated with substance use disorders and the individuals that experience them, such as:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Overuse of sick days
  • Decrease in quality of work performance
  • Theft in the workplace
  • High turnover rates
  • Losses in overall productivity

From a financial standpoint, substance use disorders do little to push productivity or improve the quality of a business. But, there are more than just financial repercussions to substance use in the workplace. The user is likely to experience interpersonal issues with his or her co-workers, as well as run into trouble at home if his or her job is what supports the family. Unfortunately, any time a substance use disorder is occurring, an individual runs of the risk of experiencing serious, life-changing repercussions within all areas of his or her life. 

signs of addiction

Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

In some workplaces, it is a known fact that a co-worker is an alcoholic or addict. In others, it is not known but may be suspected. Depending on the rules and regulations and how they are upheld, a co-worker in this situation may keep on with his or her behaviors or get fired. People who have a substance use disorder in the workplace are going to show symptoms at one point or another. Typically, these symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Changes in personality — When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol but is still employed, one of the most noticeable signs of this disease are changes in the personality. These changes might include mood swings, trouble focusing, seeming detached, and lack of motivation. 
  • Frequent visits to the restroom — Individuals with substance use disorders need to continue using no matter where they are. One of the most common signs of substance use disorder in the workplace is when a co-worker visits the restroom frequently. Of course, a co-worker might drink a large amount of water or experience a stomach ache that makes him or her frequent the bathroom from time to time, but when this type of behavior becomes consistent, it may very well be a sign of addiction. 
  • Absenteeism from work — Most people are only absent from work when they are sick or going on a trip. Typically, employees show up for work when scheduled. However, someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol might call out of work often or not show up at all. He or she may not have a reason for not going to work or have a lie put together to cover their tracks. Absenteeism is common in substance users because they may have used too much the night before, did not wake up to their alarm clock due to being passed out, or are more determined to obtain drugs or alcohol that day than going into work.  
  • Physical symptoms — As with anyone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, there is the likelihood that their physical wellbeing will take a back seat to their substance use. An employee of a company who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may begin slipping in his or her appearance. This might include dirty and/or wrinkled clothes, messy hair, greasy appearance, bad breath due to lack of brushing, etc. 

When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol and is maintaining his or her employment, the stress that he or she can experience can be intense. On the other hand, the impacts of a co-workers addiction on others in the workplace can be significant, too.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect the Workplace

Just like in family units, employees who work alongside a co-worker with substance use disorder can be negatively affected too. And, not only can coworkers be impacted, but the productivity of the company can also be at risk when someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Typically, substance abuse affects the workplace by threatening the function and success of the following:

  • Profitability — As stated before, substance abuse in the workplace costs the country billions of dollars each year. When individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are employed, their focus on their addiction rather than their job can keep the company from reaching its goals. It can also reduce the profitability of the company significantly. For example, a marketing director of a retail store may begin slacking at work, causing a decrease in sales due to lack of effort or mistakes in marketing to the public. 
  • Environment — Every work environment is different, however, there are laws put in place that work to ensure positive work environments as much as possible. If someone is drinking or using drugs while on the job, the work environment can become more chaotic and distressing for everyone in the area. The user might also make comments or behave in a manner that offends others or puts others in unsatisfactory positions. And, if an employee is experiencing drastic mood swings, then he or she may become aggressive or irritable towards others in the workplace. 
  • Safety — A national study on alcohol-related injuries reports that 16% of those admitted to the emergency room for workplace accidents have alcohol in their system. Not only does this put the employee at risk, but it also puts the company in a difficult position. Anytime a workplace accident occurs, it can cause tension amongst all employers and higher-ups, especially if alcohol or drugs are involved. It is important to note that addicted individuals not only stand a chance of hurting themselves but also others, too. They might bump into someone carrying hot coffee, causing him or her to suffer burns. They might decide to drive home from work drunk but crash into a co-worker before even getting out of the parking lot. Anything is possible when someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

When someone is using drugs or alcohol, there is no way that they are working to their greatest abilities. Holding a position in which trust has been placed in them but not upholding the requirements of that job can have a domino effect of negativity in the company.

How Can You Tell If Someone Has Been Drinking at Work

Drinking on the job is not allowed in nearly every single profession in the country. When individuals who are supposed to be conducting business are drinking alcohol rather than focusing on their job, they can threaten their wellbeing, along with the wellbeing of their co-workers and the company. Having a co-worker drinking at work is serious and needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, especially if that co-worker is responsible for the care of someone else (e.g. a surgeon, dentist, nursing home aide). Being able to tell that someone has been drinking at work is critical in keeping everyone safe. 

Every individual is going to have his or her own experience with alcohol and will display symptoms based on factors unique to them. However, some of the most common signs that someone is drinking on the job include the following:

  • Unsteady gait
  • Frequent stumbles 
  • Smelling of alcohol
  • Regular use of gum, mints, or mouthwash to mask the smell of alcohol
  • Inappropriate behavior due to lowered inhibitions 
  • Nodding off or sleeping on the job
  • Carelessness surrounding the quality of their job

In some cases, individuals who are addicted to alcohol began their job while in the midst of their addiction. Therefore, his or her drinking may be more difficult to notice if co-workers are used to his or her behaviors. But, as with all other types of addiction, if an individual’s drinking is not addressed, it will become worse. So, even if an individual’s coworkers do not think he or she is drinking on the job, at one point they may due to the progression of the disease and more obvious symptoms. 

Employee Assistance Programs

Many companies offer employee assistance programs, or EAP’s, to their employees when something (such as a substance use disorder) is affecting their ability to be productive at work. If you are struggling with a substance use disorder and its impacting your work performance and you need help, your human resources department or a third party can help you receive benefits from an EAP.

Typically, in order to be approved for an employee assistance program, you must meet with a representative who can gather information about your needs. That information will help them develop a treatment plan that can work with a revised work schedule. 

While you are participating in your employee assistance program, you can expect that:

  • All of your personal information, including information obtained through therapy or medical services, will remain confidential 
  • Your job will be protected, meaning that you cannot be fired for enrolling in an employee assistance program
  • Programming will be available for your family members as well
  • You will receive assistance transitioning back into the workplace when treatment is completed

Generally, you can receive 3-12 free therapy sessions within a year when participating in an employee assistance program. Your care can be conducted in person or via telephone, and the period of time that you spend receiving that care will be short-term. If you require more care than what you can obtain through an employee assistance program, you may benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act or FMLA.

FMLA for Substance Abuse

It can be nothing short of mortifying to think about actually sharing the severity of your substance use disorder with your employer. However, if you need professional help outside of the limitations of an EAP, then applying for FMLA is most likely your best bet. 

The U.S. Department of Labor defines FMLA as being an act that  “entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.” In other words, if you are struggling with a substance use disorder and are unable to receive the treatment you need because of work, you can be afforded that opportunity to get that help while your job is preserved until you return. However, as stated in the definition, FMLA does not allow for you to be paid during this time, so going on FMLA leave can be a risky (but often necessary) decision to make. 

One of the main reasons why people do not enroll in inpatient addiction treatment is because they are fearful they will lose their job. However, under FMLA, substance use disorders are considered severe conditions, and obtaining treatment for them (including inpatient treatment) is allowed under this law. 

If you want to apply for FMLA, you are absolutely entitled to. However, in order to be approved for FMLA, you must provide documentation that you will be receiving treatment from certified mental health and/or medical professionals. That documentation is usually a referral from a healthcare provider, such as your primary care physician, psychiatrist, therapist, or the like. 

Struggling with a substance use disorder is no way to live. And, struggling with it in the workplace can make things much worse. There is nothing to be ashamed of by reaching out to your employer and asking for help. Besides, if you continue to abuse drugs or alcohol without getting treatment, chances are you will be out of a job before you know it. So, ask for the help you need and allow your employer to help support your journey towards recovery.

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If you or a coworker are struggling with substance abuse, help is available. Reach out to us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

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