Substance Abuse in the Workplace

It is more common than most think, so it is important companies have a policy and program to help employees.

By Alexandra Walsh

Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have taken a high toll on society, including in the workplace.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, each year employee drug and alcohol misuse has cost billions of dollars to companies in the form of absenteeism, lower productivity, injuries, legal problems, and increased healthcare and insurance costs.

For these reasons, companies have a vested interest in addressing drug and alcohol problems in their places of work in order to protect both the health and well-being of their employees as well as the company’s own interests and profits.

Scope of the Problem

Drug and alcohol misuse in places of business is a more common problem than most realize. Here are some statistics on how prevalent drug and alcohol misuse is in the workplace:

  • One in every 11 workers (9% of total workforce) struggled with a substance or alcohol use disorder in the past 12 months.
  • Slightly more than 79% (41.2 million people) are employed either full- or part-time and 76% (12.4 million people) of heavy drinkers are employed.
  • Certain fields of employment have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction, including 19% of construction workers.
  • Workers with substance use disorders are absent for one and a half more weeks each year than those workers without an addiction.
  • Absenteeism is four to eight times higher for workers who struggle with an alcohol use disorder.
  • Alcohol use problems cost U.S. companies between $33 billion to $68 billion each year in increased insurance, healthcare, and lowered productivity and attendance costs.

Drug and alcohol abuse accounts for 65% of on-the-job accidents and 38% to 50% of all workers’ compensation claims are related to the abuse of alcohol or drugs.

Impact on the Workplace

Drug and alcohol use among employees affects the company, even when an employee is not actively abusing drugs or alcohol while at work or coming to work under the influence of a substance. But as a person’s addiction to drugs or alcohol increases, more areas of their life, functioning, and health are impacted, causing ripple effects that can begin to affect their job.

There are four main areas that are affected by drug and alcohol use in the workplace:

  • Chronic health issues, increased medical costs, and premature death
  • Greater risk for injuries, accidents, and non-work-related incidents
  • Increased rates of absenteeism and overuse of sick and paid leave time
  • Less productivity, impaired performance, and lower quality of work.

These four main areas can cause a range of different problems for companies:

  • Frequent tardiness and unreliable attendance
  • After-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance
  • Poor decision making
  • Poorer relationships among workers
  • Mood and behavior problems that affect employee morale
  • Trouble with attention and concentration to detail and completion of tasks
  • Inappropriate behaviors (hostility, anger outbursts)
  • Higher turnover resulting in having to train new employees
  • Disciplinary actions and procedures.

Signs of Abuse

As the problems caused by substance abuse in the workplace suggest, there are telltale signs that someone may be suffering from a substance use disorder. Some key indicators to look for that someone may be abusing:

  • Decreasing work efficiency in terms of volume, accuracy, or promptness
  • Frequent tardiness with vague excuses
  • Excessive use of sick or leave days (especially after the weekend)
  • Requesting immediate vacation days
  • Decreased personal hygiene
  • Physical indicators (track marks, smelling of alcohol, bloodshot eyes)
  • Increased error rates, including accidents or near misses
  • Trying to mask substance abuse (taking breath mints frequently)
  • Mood swings, irritability, or conduct problems
  • Increased apathy towards work or lowered quality of work
  • Poor interactions with coworkers, bosses, or customers
  • Signs of intoxication (jittery, slurring words, drowsiness, cloudy thinking)
  • Impaired coordination or judgment
  • Signs of withdrawal (trembling or shaking hands, sickness, weight loss)
  • Excuses, lying, stealing, or dishonesty
  • Missing deadlines or inconsistent performance at work
  • Markedly increased or decreased energy levels.

Recognizing the warning signs of substance abuse in the workplace early on can mean intervention and help for employees will be more successful and the risk to the business will greatly lessen.

Help at the Workplace

The place of business can play a key role in helping a person struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction get the help they need. Addiction is a treatable disease—and seeking treatment greatly increases the likelihood of recovery!

Employees who get addiction treatment are often able to overcome their addiction and become highly productive and valued workers. Employee assistance programs, medical leave policies, and supportive leaders all play a key role in making treatment for substance use disorders more easily accessible for workers.

Supervisors have additional roles and responsibilities to exercise in a drug-free workplace policy and program. They should receive training on how to recognize, detect, and deal with employees who have the job skills but appear to be faltering due to potential drug and alcohol issues.

Guidelines for Supervisors

Supervisors, managers, as well as human resources staff can benefit from and be of great help when following these guidelines.

Know the Company’s Policy and Program: Be familiar with the drug-free workplace policy and program, along with the rationale for having them and enforcing them. Make sure these are clearly communicated to all staff members.

Be Aware of Legally Sensitive Areas: Maintain all employees’ rights under the policy and follow the same procedures and policy for all employees. Provide due process and opportunity for responding to allegations. If testing is a part of the policy, ensure laboratory quality control and confirmation of positive tests.

Provide updated information on changing local, state, and federal laws as they apply to alcohol, prescription drugs, and other drugs. Include and explain any implications such changes may have on drug-free workplace policy.

Recognize Potential Problems: Observation is key to early detection of emerging patterns of performance and attendance problems. Do not wait for performance or attendance to deteriorate to the point where the employee has little chance of remediating the situation.

Addressing potential issues before they become serious problems is a key step in creating a productive workplace.

Document: Documentation is an essential tool for identifying patterns in performance or attendance deficiencies. It is also essential for advancing corrective action. When you observe problem attendance or performance patterns, document them as they occur.

When documenting, be specific about instances where performance and attendance failed to meet workplace standards. Be sure to provide employees with a well-defined job description, along with appropriate job training. By doing so, you can be explicit about the behaviors you expect.

You will be more effective if you have a documented list of specific examples to refer to when addressing the employee. These examples will enable the employee to understand the true nature of your concern, serve to motivate, and help you assign the appropriate corrective action. Remember: document concrete facts and observations rather than opinions, gossip, or assumptions.

Act: Addressing the problem is a proven strategy for dealing with employees who have a performance problem in which substance use, including prescription drug misuse, may be a factor.

Constructively addressing the problem involves organizing a well-structured performance meeting. If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), it might be able to provide guidance on the process and help coach you.

Present the employee with documented evidence of performance deficits. If you believe that personal problems could be contributing to performance and attendance concerns, refer the employee to an appropriate support resource such as an EAP.

When addressing the employee with your documented concerns, concentrate on the following:

  • Identify the employee’s strengths.
  • Describe the specific job performance problem identified in your documentation and provide the employee with their own copy.
  • Discuss and describe performance expectations.
  • Keep your discussions focused on job performance and attendance.
  • Identify support offered by the company to help the employee improve performance.
  • Set a time period in which you expect the employee to improve job performance.
  • Identify a time frame for another meeting with the employee to review progress.

Refer to Appropriate Programs: A referral is not an adverse action but can be the first step toward helping an employee get back on track. Making a referral should include the following:

  • Choose the assistance based on the established effectiveness of available treatment options for particular issues.
  • Consider a provider in the employee’s health insurance plan.
  • Check that the provider understands the employee’s main job requirements and the nature of the workplace.
  • Consider referring to an EAP that specializes in conducting employee workplace assessments, locating substance use treatment resources, transitioning the employee back into the workplace, and monitoring their ongoing compliance with return to work.
  • Be supportive of employees who have been referred for assistance with problems related to alcohol and misuse of prescription or other drugs.


Recovering from alcohol, prescription drugs, or other drug problems is a gradual process. To prevent relapse and promote sustained recovery, supportive re-entry and follow-up are key.

All company leaders should be prepared to deal with a substance abuse problem. Although these situations may not be all that common in a particular company, knowing what to do in case of emergency is important.

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Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.