Talking to Your Employee About their Substance Abuse

How to talk to employees about substance abuse.
Dominic Nicosia

Written By

Dominic Nicosia
Dr. Po-Chang Hsu -

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Last Medically Reviewed on January 24, 2024

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? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2020, about 14.5% of Americans aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder. The National Safety Council reports 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 turnover 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 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 most, you may be uniquely empowered to guide your employees 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 employees 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 which 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 an employee who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, but it does protect employees who are no longer using drugs illegally and are receiving treatment for drug addiction or have been rehabilitated. Company substance abuse policies must comply with the ADA, the Drug-Free Workplace Act, and other federal and state laws regarding privacy, discrimination, and workplace safety. 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 your employee admits to a substance abuse problem, you are required to engage in an interactive process to engage in dialogue and come up with a mutually equitable solution. This often concludes with your 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 to 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 employees back.

We take our music-focused treatment for addiction very seriously, so we are going to hold our content to the same precision standards. Recovery Unplugged’s editorial process involves our editing safeguard and our ideals. Read our Editorial Process.

Dominic Nicosia

Dominic, a seasoned content writer at Recovery Unplugged, brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the realm of healthcare writing, particularly in the addiction and recovery field.

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