How Employers and Co-workers Can Spot a Colleague with a Substance Abuse Problem

While addicts can cause their family and friends a lot of grief, frustration, and aggravation, relatives and other loved ones are not the only people who are affected by the actions of those who suffer from a substance abuse problem. Employers and co-workers will also have to deal with the consequences of sharing a workplace with someone whose performance on the job will inevitably be impacted by their use of drugs and/or alcohol. More than 70% of all substance abusers in the USA hold down at least one job, and confidential studies have revealed that 25% of American workers between the ages of 18 and 34 will use illegal drugs at some point over the course of a year. These numbers do not mean that workers are actually using on the job, but this is really a distinction without a difference, since the existential reality that addicts create for themselves will stay with them for every moment of every day, affecting every single thing that they do.

Addicts as Employees

A closer look at the statistics on substance abuse and the workplace reveals that addicts:

  • Miss 10 workdays for every one that is missed by other employees
  • Are only about two-thirds as productive as the average worker
  • Are five times more likely to cause accidents in the workplace that injure themselves or others
  • Are five times more likely to ask for worker’s compensation at some point
  • Accrue employer-covered health care costs that are three times higher than the average employee
  • Play some kind of a role in 40% of all industrial on-the-job fatalities

As it is clear to see, drug and alcohol abuse is having a dramatic impact in offices, factories, stores, and public facilities all across the United States. It is causing businesses to lose profits, and it is making the work environment a far more dangerous place than it has to be. Because of the serious nature of this threat, it behooves employers and workers everywhere to pay very close attention to what is going on around them at all times, to make sure that the employee they are sending out to meet the public or laboring next to on the workroom floor is alert, aware, and in complete control of his or her faculties regardless of what duties that person might be performing.

Spotting the Signs of Addiction

Often times, addicts are experts at lying and covering their tracks, which is why they can be tough to spot in the workplace even when bosses or co-workers are on the lookout for clues. Nevertheless, there are usually a number of visible signs that tend to indicate that an employee may have a substance abuse problem; and while none of these signs is proof of anything by itself, if a worker is exhibiting two or more of these behaviors or characteristics the chances that the person in question is overindulging in drugs or alcohol are fairly substantial. The most prominent signs of abuse include:

  • Frequent tardiness or unexplained absences
  • Inconsistent on-the-job performance
  • Frequent small accidents resulting in minor injuries or broken objects
  • Unusual physical symptoms or behaviors (unsteady gait, hyperactive/manic activity, sudden weight loss, dental problems, wearing long sleeves on hot days, etc.)
  • A sudden lack of concern over personal appearance and hygiene
  • Paranoia or overreaction to criticism or helpful suggestions
  • An unwillingness to talk about hobbies, family life, or personal interests in someone who was forthcoming before
  • Lower levels of productivity in the morning; a general sluggishness when first reporting to work
  • Bloodshot eyes, or bags under the eyes indicating a lack of sleep

For an employer, or for those working in management, if these signs are present the next step is clear – if you suspect an employee is abusing intoxicants, you must call them in for a private consultation to see if you can get to the bottom of what has been going on. But for co-workers, things are a little more complex. No one wants to be known as a snitch, and no one wants to be responsible for someone losing their job, especially if it is someone they consider a friend. Ultimately, since everyone’s safety and livelihood is affected, workers may have no choice but to turn a substance abusing co-worker in if that person won’t admit there is a problem. However, if it is at all possible, someone suspected of being an addict should be confronted and given a chance to seek help on their own first before any further action is taken.

The Role of a Supportive Workplace Environment

All employers should have a written and clearly-spelled-out drug and alcohol policy in place. It is important for employees to feel safe and secure enough to be able to come forward and admit it when have a substance abuse problem, which is why an official workplace policy should be supportive rather than threatening. As long as an employee is willing to get help, they should be granted a leave of absence to seek treatment and rehabilitation without being concerned that they will lose their jobs. When employers are supportive in this way, not only will it make those with substance abuse problems more likely to come forward, but it will also make co-workers feel more comfortable getting involved if they know their friend and colleague will not be facing automatic termination if the truth is revealed. One last thing needs to be said, and that is about drug testing programs. While instituting one may be a precaution that some employers feel obligated to take, the adoption of such a program does set up an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic between employees and management that can inhibit workers from asking for help all on their own. And no business that institutes a drug testing policy should have a false sense of security because they have done so. Unless an employer has unlimited funds, they will probably only be able to afford to test workers periodically, and perhaps even only when there is just cause for doing so. Because of the time gaps between tests, it is entirely conceivable that someone with a drug or alcohol abuse problem could remain on the job for quite awhile before a random drug screening would actually reveal the truth. So even if there is a drug testing program in operation, it is still essential that everyone in the workplace remain vigilant and on guard at all times.

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