An Addiction Guide for Colleagues: Encountering Substance Abuse in the Workplace

When it comes to dealing with a colleague’s addiction in the workplace, many of us have either been there or been them.  We’ve either experienced a co-worker struggling with drugs or alcohol right before our very eyes, as their performance slips, their attendance gets more and more erratic and they try desperately to cover up their personal struggles…or we’ve been that very colleague–some of us have actually been both.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that nearly 10 percent of full-time workers between the ages of 18-64 struggle with substance use disorder and that over 70 percent of illicit drug users and excessive drinkers continue to maintain full-time employment. The reality is that workplace addiction and SUD are as prevalent as they’ve ever been, if not more, and as colleagues of those struggling, we can help reverse the crisis one co-worker at a time.

Knowing the Signs: How to Identify Addiction in A Colleague

Let’s face it: some people just aren’t as “impressive” as others in the workplace. There’s often the one or two people that end up doing all the work on a team project, while others take their share of the credit and reward—that’s not what we’re taking about here. There’s a difference between a generally lax workplace attitude and real-life struggles and health issues that interfere with your job. Some of the more common signs that your colleague is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction include:

  • Increasingly Poor and Erratic Attendance
  • Missed Deadlines
  • Worsening Attitude and Job Performance
  • Sloppy Appearance and Worsening Hygiene at Work
  • Erratic Behavior Like Mood Swings
  • Leaving for Long Periods during the Day
  • Constantly Looking Stressed and Overwhelmed
  • Complaining of Being Sick or In Pain
  • Smelling Like Alcohol or Drugs

It’s also a red flag if your colleague keeps talking about their plans to party at night or on the weekends, or they constantly “joke” about how they need a drink. Some people are more secretive than others about their addiction.

What Can I Do to Help with My Colleague’s Addiction?

This is a complex and delicate question, but the answer will always come down to your safety, the safety of your colleague and doing what you instinctively believe to be right. Many feel presumptuous about intervening in their co-worker’s substance abuse or like it’s “not their place” to say anything. The reality is that, in addition to slowly killing themselves and destroying their own lives, their addiction will ultimately end up jeopardizing your job security and the health of your company.

Data from the Surgeon General’s Office indicates that the United States spends approximately $135 billion to treat addiction and related health issues, and employers bear most of the brunt of these costs. This means workplace substance abuse is everyone’s problem. Here’s how you can handle it in your own colleague:

Talk to Them…But Don’t Use the “A” Word

If you feel comfortable with approaching your coworker directly, and that it won’t create tension, try appealing to them first. Approach your colleague in a real, concerned, non-confrontational manner. Let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk about anything. Don’t mention that you think they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, or even that you’ve noticed anything suspicious, just that you’re there to listen if they need it.

Do Your Research

Read up on your company’s substance abuse policy and see if there are resources to help employees get treatment if they need it. Knowing this and presenting this information will further the dialogue and may help your co-worker if they tell you that they have a problem. It will also help you to understand the penalties and consequences for workplace substance abuse.

Talk to Your Supervisor about Your Concerns

This may seem like “butting in” or violating your co-worker’s trust, but remember why you’re doing this, and that you didn’t ask for these circumstances. Your supervisor probably has training on how to deal with these issues or, at the very least, has a set of guidelines to which they can refer. Many companies have what are called employee-assistance programs (EAPs) to help get staff who struggle with addiction get into treatment. These programs may provide both financial and logistical assistance.

Let Recovery Unplugged Help Your Addicted Colleague or Employee

Recovery Unplugged offers a proactive EAP resource to help your addicted colleague or employee overcome their substance abuse and return to work as the vibrant and committed employee they were on their first day on the job. We offer clinical care and telehealth service for a full continuum of care. We also offer on-demand peer support services to help employees and their family members seeking long-term recovery from substance use. Don’t let substance use disorder derail your staff or your business. Recovery Unplugged is ready to partner with your organization to affect change.

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