How to Identify Substance Abuse in Employees

By Kate Gettinger, OD April 14, 2021

Being able to spot the signs of addiction in the workplace can be beneficial, both for workplace productivity but also from a public health standpoint. Substance abuse is more common than you may think. According to the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependency, 70% of the 14 million people who use illegal drugs are employed, so you may have an employee currently using drugs and you may not even be aware of it. With many states passing laws to legalize substances like marijuana, you may find yourself with employees struggling with addiction and it is critical to be able to identify the warning signs so you can safely intervene and help provide resources to get them the help they need.

Some of the more commonly abused substances include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs.

Alcohol is readily available and is often more socially acceptable than other drugs, and so employees easily slip from social use into a dependency. Alcohol abuse can frequently lead to on-the-job injuries, as well.

Marijuana is becoming more widely accessible in the United States due to legalization, but even in 2014 a survey by Mashable.com reported that 1 in 10 Americans show up to work high. With increasing availability, these numbers will likely remain steady or increase in 2021. In fact, a 2020 survey conducted in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, three states with recreational cannabis legalized, found that one in four employed marijuana users reported showing up to work high, as well as one in four users reporting actually getting high at work.

Prescription drug abuse is also drastically growing in the United States. The opioid epidemic continues to ravage the nation, and depressants, opioids, and antidepressants are responsible for more overdose fatalities than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and amphetamines combined. Prescription stimulants such as Adderall, commonly used to treat ADHD, are also frequently abused.

How to Spot Signs of Substance Abuse and Addiction in the Workplace

7 Common Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace | The ...It can be difficult to identify the signs of drug abuse among employees. Often, signs of drug abuse can mimic those of depression or other mental health disorders. An employee showing up late for work one day and seeming a little groggy isn’t a good reason to immediately suspect they are on or coming off a bender. Substance abuse will result in many signs of addiction occurring over a span of time, so if you begin to suspect an employee might have a substance abuse problem it can be useful to begin logging signs over the long term. Some of those signs may include:

- Drastic mood changes, including difficulty interacting with co-workers or withdrawing from co-workers

- Repeated absences or tardiness, especially immediately following weekends, holidays, or paydays

- Tremors, bloodshot eyes, sweating, dilated pupils, looking spaced out, excessively agitated, unstable walking

- Smelling of alcohol or marijuana

- Change in appearance, looking disheveled, unkept

- Inappropriate reactions such as excessive giggling, uncontrollable speaking volume, or abrupt, rude responses

- Coming back late from lunch break or avoiding co-workers immediately following lunch

- Frequent trips to the bathroom or making excuses to leave work for short periods

- Falling asleep at work

- Theft

What To Do If You Expect an Employee Has a Substance Abuse Issue

College Drug Abuse - Alcohol and Drug Addiction in College ...If you think one of your employees has an addiction, it is important not to try to confront the employee on your own. Remove the employee from any safety-sensitive or dangerous work, and be sure to keep documentation of any evidence that supports your suspicion. Depending on state laws or employer policy, it may be appropriate to send the employee for drug testing. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on your perceptions. When in doubt, ask your attorney, but you can ask the employee about any documented lapses in behavior or performance and give them an opportunity to explain themselves. If the employee admits to having a substance abuse problem, then you need to be ready with a strategy to intervene.

The best strategy is to involve professional help. Resources such as Employee Assistance Programs can provide free, confidential counseling, referrals, and follow-up services for employees. Employee Assistance Programs can also help with other stressors affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as family problems and personal loss. These programs are easily accessible and can help employees overcome addiction and improve workplace safety.

Keep in mind that as an employer, you can prohibit the use and possession of illegal drugs in the workplace, as well as prohibiting working under the influence, but it may be beneficial to consult legal counsel to develop a strong substance abuse policy. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees with particular cases of substance abuse, such as those who have completed rehabilitation programs or those who have been prescribed legal drugs which then become an addiction, such as opioids. As such, it can be handy to seek legal expertise to make sure you are in the right when handling cases of employee drug addiction.

Overall, with increasing drug use trends it is not uncommon to have an employee with a substance abuse problem. As employers, we need to be ready with a plan of action to recognize the signs and get employees the help they need to remain safe and healthy.

Kate Gettinger, OD

Dr. Kate Gettinger grew up in upstate Illinois and obtained her Bachelor’s in Biology from Truman State University. She worked throughout her undergraduate career at an optometrist’s office and fell in love with the profession. She received her Doctorate in Optometry from University of Missouri-St. Louis Optometry School and received honors for specialization in low vision, including the William Feinbloom Low Vision Award. Dr. Gettinger enjoys treating and managing dry eye, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetes. Her professional interests include ways to improve healthcare access to at-risk communities and improving public health. Dr. Gettinger routinely contributes to optometry publications and writes both educational and advocacy articles. Currently residing in St. Louis, Dr. Gettinger enjoys spending time outdoors with her dog, trying new foods and dining out at local restaurants, playing trivia, brushing up on her French language skills, and exploring new challenges.

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