Handling a Colleague’s Addiction
Addiction is a chronic and debilitating condition that can lead to serious negative consequences.1 People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have difficulty controlling their use even though it causes serious problems in their lives.1
People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are more likely to experience:1,2
- Work-related problems, such as job loss or a loss of license to practice in a specific field.
- Family problems.
- Financial issues.
- Accidents and injuries.
- Physical and mental health issues.
When a person is struggling with an addiction, it can severely impact their professional life and may put the people they work with in danger (for example, if they were to cause an accident while intoxicated).3
Whether you are a peer or supervisor, knowing how to handle workplace addiction can be difficult. This guide will help you identify the signs of a drug or alcohol problem in an employee and provide tips on how to take action.
Signs a Colleague Is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol
If a colleague is using drugs or alcohol, you may notice some general physical, psychological, and behavioral signs:2,3
Physical: Your colleague may show signs of active intoxication or acute substance withdrawal at work, such as:
- Smelling of alcohol.
- Glassy or bloodshot eyes.
- Small or enlarged pupils.
- Runny nose.
- Appearing tired, even to the point of falling asleep.
Psychological: Your coworker may appear:
- More anxious or depressed than usual.
- Lonely or sad.
- Moodier than normal, fluctuating quickly between highs and lows.
Behavioral: Employees who are abusing substances may demonstrate concerning behaviors at work, such as:
- Disappearing for periods of time.
- Working unusual hours.
- Excessive lateness.
- Poor job performance.
- Conflicts at work or increasing isolation from peers.
If you work in a medical setting, suspicious behavior in a colleague may include actions such as casually requesting prescriptions, volunteering to count medications, and disregarding safety policies and procedures. Other signs that a colleague might be abusing drugs at work include medication package that has been tampered with, missing medications, or signs that patients are not being properly medicated.2
Is it Possible to Enable a Coworker?
Supervisors or coworkers who suspect a colleague is addicted may be at a loss for how to approach the situation.2 Some people may react by enabling the employee’s addiction in an attempt to help or avoid a confrontation.
Enabling involves preventing the addicted person from experiencing the full consequences of their addiction.3 Enabling is often discussed within the context of family, but enabling happens in professional environments, as well. 3
Examples of enabling at work include:2,3
- Making excuses or covering up for the employee.
- Loaning the employee money.
- Allowing someone else to call out sick for the employee.
- Allowing other employees to pick up the person’s workload.
- Excusing the employee’s absences or lateness.
- Not taking steps to report or address the employee’s substance use.
Often, enabling comes from good intentions. If you care about your coworker, you may want to protect them or “rescue” them. Unfortunately, enabling may have the opposite effect in the long run—in the absence of consequences, the addiction may only get worse and an accident or injury may occur that could have been prevented by intervening early.2 Enabling an employee can also harm the morale of the whole team, especially when other employees are forced to pick up the slack for a coworker whose performance is suffering.3
Avoid enabling a coworker by covering up for their substance use. Consider reporting the issue to a supervisor or to your human resources manager. 2 Your company handbook may outline steps to take if you suspect a coworker is abusing drugs or alcohol.
As a supervisor or manager, you can also avoid enabling by holding the employee responsible for his or her behavior and taking steps outlined by the company’s policy. By allowing the person to face the natural consequences of their use, you could actually be helping them. 3
Tips for Peers
If you suspect that a coworker may be abusing drugs or alcohol, DO:2
- Review your company’s internal policies to determine what steps to take. If it outlines how to respond to an intoxicated colleague, follow the recommended steps.
- Document instances of concerning behavior. Keep track of the instances in which you witness your coworker appearing intoxicated by noting the date, time, and place, who was involved, what occurred, whether or not it was reported, and the outcome. Record only facts, not your opinion of the incident(s).
- If it is an option, refer your colleague to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs may offer confidential assessment, counseling, and referrals for treatment for addiction, mental illness, and other issues that can impact a person’s performance at work.3 If available, provide your coworker with information on the program. You may choose to do this anonymously.
- Discuss the issue with a supervisor in private. If the situation requires immediate intervention or a person’s safety is at risk, do not wait to have this conversation.
When dealing with an addicted colleague, DON’T:2
- Enable the addicted person by making excuses for or covering up for them.
- Try to diagnose or treat the person’s addiction.
If you work in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or doctor’s office, you may have legal and ethical responsibilities to address drug abuse by other healthcare professionals.4 Failing to take action can compromise the safety of patients under your colleague’s care.4 If you suspect that a coworker is stealing and/or dealing drugs, contact security and/or the police.4 If you are registered with the DEA and suspect that controlled substances may have been stolen, you must report it to your local DEA office.4
Tips for Supervisors
Addiction in the workplace can impact all team members and create an unsafe and uncomfortable work environment. As a supervisor, it is important to take action to address an employee whose drug or alcohol is affecting the work environment.5,6
If you suspect that an employee is abusing drugs or alcohol, DO:5,6
- Take action early, rather than waiting. Putting the issue off could lead to additional problems for the employee and the company.
- Take immediate action if the employee is putting him or herself or others in danger. If the employee operates heavy machinery, cares for patients, or has access to weapons, then restrict the employee from these activities immediately.
- Contact security or law enforcement if the employee is aggressive or threatens danger.
- Document your concerns. Indicate the date, time, and performance issue.
- Meet with the employee privately to discuss their performance. Keep the focus on job performance and advise the employee of the specific actions that will be taken should performance not improve.
- If an option, refer the employee to the company’s EAP. Explain what your company’s EAP services entail and encourage the employee to meet with an EAP counselor.
- Expect denial. If the employee discounts the problem and refuses to contact the EAP, continue to document issues carefully and take any necessary next steps (e.g., disciplinary action).
- Approach the employee like you would approach a friend or family member. Keep the discussion professional by focusing on the person’s job performance.
- Try to make a diagnosis. Treatment professionals should be the ones to diagnose a substance use disorder. As a supervisor, your focus should be on how the issue is affecting the workplace.
- Enable the employee’s addiction by minimizing the consequences of the person’s behavior.
In some cases, companies may choose to conduct drug testing to confirm if an employee is abusing substances.7 While testing may occur as a part of an annual physical exam or pre-employment screening, in some cases, companies may also conduct random drug testing if they have a reasonable suspicion that a person is abusing drugs or alcohol based on a documented history of risky behaviors at work or if an employee shows signs of being unfit to work.7 Refer to your company’s policies to determine whether drug testing is appropriate in your work setting. Also check your state/local laws for questions about the legality of drug testing your employees.
Use of Employee Leave for Treatment
An employee who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may ask to take a temporary leave of absence to get help. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a one-year period in order to receive treatment for serious health conditions, including substance use disorders.8
If an employee is taking time off but not attending treatment, then they do not qualify for FMLA.8 In cases of disability, companies should verify that there is a documented treatment plan. When an option, they may enlist the help of the EAP manager and disability plan administrators.8
When an employee is ready to return to work after taking a leave of absence, companies may develop a Return-to-Work Agreement (RTWA).8 An RTWA is a document that outlines the expectations for an employee returning to work after attending treatment and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.8 It is typically developed with input from the employer, employee, EAP, union, and/or other medical or addiction professionals. An RTWA allows a company to keep valuable employees, allowing them a chance to seek treatment and return to the job. 8
If an employee tests positive for drugs or alcohol or is unable to adequately perform at work due to substance use, companies may have the right to discipline or terminate employment.5 According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can terminate employees who violate company policies that prohibit drug or alcohol use.9
Rather than terminating employment on the first violation, many companies encourage employees to attend treatment before resorting to employment termination.
Recommending Treatment Options
If you’re in a position to recommend treatment to a colleague, know that there is more out there than the standard 30-day inpatient rehab. Depending on your colleague’s personal circumstances and the severity of their addiction, they can choose from a whole spectrum of treatment options:8
- Many inpatient treatment settings allow for 24-hour supervision and medical monitoring in a hospital-like setting. This level of care may be most suitable for people with significantly severe or long-standing addictions as well as those who are at risk of experiencing a severe or complicated withdrawal. Inpatient treatment environments allow for an intensive therapeutic schedule that includes ample group and individual counseling sessions. People who suffer from medical or psychiatric conditions along with addiction may also benefit from inpatient treatment.
- Residential treatment programs also provide 24-hour care, but often in a less restrictive setting than hospital-based inpatient programs. This type of treatment can be beneficial for people who do not have medical or mental health issues that require hospitalization but who can benefit from a supportive live-in environment.
- Partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient programs (IOP) provide several hours of therapy per week without housing. People who attend this form of treatment may reside at their own home or a sober living house. PHP and IOP can help people who have already completed inpatient or residential treatment and have a stable living environment, but are still in need of a high level of support.
- Outpatient treatment involves attending one or more weekly group or individual therapy sessions. This level of care is most appropriate for people who do not require more intensive levels of treatment (and/or have attended another form of treatment already) and who have a good support system at home.
The costs of addiction treatment can vary depending upon the level of care and particular program. If your company offers health insurance, advise the employee that their plan may cover some or all of their care.
Insurance plans vary in how much a member must pay out-of-pocket. In some cases, there may be a deductible, coinsurance, or copay. A deductible is the amount a member must pay before insurance covers costs. Once a member reaches his or her deductible, he or she may be responsible for a percentage of the costs, called a coinsurance. Some plans require that a member pay a copay, which is a set fee that is paid up-front. If you’re unsure of whether your insurance policy covers treatment, Laguna Treatment Hospital offers a free and quick way to verify your insurance benefits.
Ignoring the Issue Won’t Help
Taking action to address an employee’s addiction is important because substance abuse in the workplace could lead to:8
- Unsafe working conditions.
- More absences from work.
- Larger healthcare expenses due to injury and illness.
- Decreased job performance and productivity.
- Larger number of workers’ compensation and disability claims.
Directly addressing a colleague’s substance use instead of ignoring it can provide the impetus for them to get the help they need to recover. Laguna Treatment Hospital is one program that offers a range of evidence-based treatments for addiction and co-occurring disorders. Allowing employees to take the time they need to recover from addiction can lead to a safer and more productive work environment for everyone.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction.
- Washington Health Professional Services. (2016). A guide for assisting colleagues who demonstrate impairment in the workplace.
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). Alcohol in the workplace: A handbook for supervisors.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Agency. (n.d.). Drug addiction in health professionals.
- Deitchler, D. & Dilger, J. (2018). How to approach an employee who might be dealing with addiction. HR Daily Advisor.
- Yagoda, R. (2016). Addiction in the workplace: Tips for employers U.S. News.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Drug testing.
- National Business Group on Health. (2009). An employer’s guide to workplace substance abuse: Strategies and treatment recommendations.
- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2017). The Americans With Disabilities Act: Applying performance and conduct standards to employees with disabilities.