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Talking to Your Employee About their Substance Abuse

It’s a dilemma no supervisor or manager wants to have; but that far too many must: how do you talk to your employees about their substance abuse? Data from the National Safety Council indicates that nearly 10 percent of all working adults in the United States struggle with some type of substance use disorder. They also report that, while the average worker misses about 15 days of work per year, for illness, injury or reasons other than vacation and holidays, workers with substance use disorders, however, miss two more weeks annually than their peers, averaging nearly five weeks a year.

In addition to higher levels of employee absence, workplace substance abuse leads to a variety of factors that can directly impact your organization, including higher turn-over rate, bloated healthcare expenditures, employee morale and safety issues and much more. While the risks associated with this increasingly common workplace issue are evident, and must be addressed ASAP, it can be hard to actually talk to their employees about their alcohol and drug use and intervene on their behalf.

It’s important to realize that, as their boss and one of the people with whom they interact with most, you may be uniquely empowered to guide your employee toward the help they need; and this begins with a conversation. Here are some insights to make talking to your employees about their alcohol or drug abuse easier.

Go to the Playbook

Chances are, there are policies outlined in your company’s HR manual for dealing with workplace substance abuse (if not, it will need to be updated immediately). There’s a way to stay legally compliant while being empathetic and compassionate. Consult your company’s policies and procedures and know what your next move is before you talk to your employee so you can give them accurate information. Once you suspect that they’re struggling with substance use disorder, remove them from any safety-sensitive work immediately.

Identifying Employee Substance Abuse

It’s a good idea to gather evidence before you speculate regarding a problem. Examine factors like absenteeism, performance, suspicious behavior, hygiene, grooming and appearance and more. Are they disappearing unexpectedly? Did they cause an accident or miss an important deadline because they were intoxicated. Unfortunately, these situations are often the very means through employers find out about employee alcohol or drug abuse. Once you verify that there’s an issue, you can move forward.

Know the Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act has very specific guidelines governing the handling of workplace substance abuse, including:

  • Protecting employees who have completed rehabilitation for drug or alcohol use.
  • Protecting employees who have a current alcohol dependency issue, whether or not they have completed a rehabilitation program.
  • Coverage of employees using legal drugs, such as opioid pain medication, who develop an addiction.

The ADA does not protect employees using illegal drugs. Company substance abuse policies are subject to ADA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, as well as state workplace drug testing and other applicable laws. Also make sure you fully understand the workplace substance abuse laws in your state. As an employer, you’re empowered to prohibit workplace drug abuse and coordinate testing and screening if you suspect an employee is using or has a problem.

Having the Conversation about Employee Substance Abuse

Let your employee know you’re there to help them and that their jobs can still be there after they get the help they need. Remember the goal is to help; not scare or punish. If you’re employee admits to a substance abuse problem, you’re required to engage in an interactive process to engage in dialogue and come up with a mutually equitable solution. This often concludes with you employee asking for help, in which case you can coordinate your employee assistance program.

Recovery Unplugged Employee Assistance Program

The Recovery Unplugged Employee Assistance program works with companies of all sizes in a variety of industries effectively navigate workplace substance abuse and guide their affected employees toward treatment and a second chance in recovery. We offer workplace addiction education, guidance for dealing with employee substance abuse and in-network insurance partnerships to facilitate and expedite treatment. Contact our outreach staff to learn more about how our EAP program can help your company. We’re ready to help you get your employee back.

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