Tough Stuff: Strategies for Addressing Addiction in the Workplace

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Are you worried that an employee is struggling with drugs or alcohol? Learn effective strategies for helping them get the help they need.

An employee who goes from being reliable, punctual and a star performer to exhibiting erratic behavior, under-performance, chronic tardiness and unexplained absences may be struggling with substance abuse.

If job performance has declined due to substance abuse, employers have the right to fire their employees. However, many employers wish to help their employees constructively address addiction and support their entrance into a treatment program.

“Increasingly, employers understand that substance abuse is a biological illness, not a moral failing,” said Rogan Holmes at Beachway Therapy Center, which works closely with employers to coordinate employee substance abuse treatment. “As a supervisor, you are in a unique position to provide help and follow-up care.”

Addressing addiction in the workplace is never easy. It can be a huge shock to realize that a trusted employee is abusing drugs or alcohol. However, with intervention and treatment, sobriety is possible. Keep the following guidelines in mind for addressing workplace addiction:

Related Article: 9 HR Basics for Any Small Business

Be Clear About Your Role

As a supervisor or co-worker, it is not your job to be an employee’s therapist. However, you do have a unique opportunity to use your position to help your employee address addiction and make a positive choice to enter treatment.

Talk to other employees and make it clear that you’re concerned about the employee’s decline in performance and your goal is to get them help—not have them fired or otherwise penalized for their addiction struggles.

Document Specific Changes

If you are preparing for an intervention, you will want to reference specific instances in which the employee’s substance abuse affected their job performance and hurt other employees. 

Jot down examples and the consequences of these actions. An example of a specific instance might be, “John appeared drunk when he delivered the keynote presentation and was slurring his speech.”

The consequence might then be, “We lost the client pitch as a result of John’s erratic behavior.” This specific example is better than a vague generalization like “John is drunk at work a lot.”

Be Prepared for Resistance

Individuals who are trapped in the throes of drug and alcohol abuse are experts at shifting blaming and rationalizing their behavior with a seemingly endless string of increasingly far-fetched excuses.

They may blame family problems, emotional trauma, or even say workplace stress is the reason for their substance abuse. While it’s certainly possible that these factors play a role in their substance abuse, individual responsibility is the essential first step for successful treatment.

For this reason, businesses typically engage the services of a professional addiction specialist to manage an intervention in a confident, safe and supportive environment.

Check Your Company’s Policy

Before reaching out to a supervisor or contacting an addiction specialist, review your company’s policy for drug and alcohol abuse. If an employee chooses to enter treatment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will protect the employee from being fired for past errors or poor job performance.

Keep in mind that ADA does not protect individuals who are actively using drugs or alcohol and employers have the right to test their employees and fire them for substance abuse. However, if you wish to help your employee enter treatment, reassure him that he will not lose his job for doing so.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can also help to protect an employee from losing his job while in treatment. FMLA allows eligible employees to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to 12 weeks within a 12-month period; this time could be used for a 30-day or 60-day treatment program.

Be Active in Aftercare

Managing the transition from in-patient rehab to aftercare can be a serious challenge, especially if your employee feels pressure from old friends to fall back into negative ways.

“It’s not enough to send employees off for treatment and say they’re cured when they return to work,” cautions Jeff Jay, the co-author of Love First: A New Approach To Intervention for Alcoholism & Drug Addition tells Forbes. “Be involved in complying with aftercare.” Be supportive about your employee’s need to attend meetings and watch for warning signs for relapse.

Bottom Line

Do you have an employee headed down the proverbial “wrong path”? Don’t ignore the warning signs for substance abuse and addiction. Talk to a supervisor and reach out to a professional addiction specialist to help your employee get the help they need. Addiction is not a permanent state; with the right treatment program, sobriety, and productive life is possible. There is always hope!

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