How to Help an Employee Who Has an Addiction
One of the most difficult situations an employer can find themselves in is learning that an employee is dealing with substance use disorder, or SUD. Primarily, any good employer wants to ensure that their employees are healthy and stable in all areas of life. However, it’s important to remember that substance use disorder can have a serious impact on the workplace.
For example, SUD can impact an employee’s work ethic, decision-making skills, communication skills, and even their personality and the way they work with others. Even more critically, an employee arriving at work under the influence can be a risk when it comes to customer service, interactions with coworkers, the general safety and comfort of the work environment, and even the employee themselves.
As an employer, it is a challenge to determine what role you should play, if any, in confronting your employee concerning SUD issues. What should you do if you discover an employee needs addiction treatment?
How Do I Know an Employee Has an Addiction?
First, it is important to be able to recognize when an employee may need help addressing a substance use disorder. Regardless of the work environment, it’s important to watch for key signs of addiction in the workplace. Paying close attention to these signs can help you intercept a potentially dangerous situation before it gets out of hand. Once you suspect substance use disorder, documenting physical cues, concerning signs, and changes in behavior can help ensure that you are confident as you approach your next steps.
Here are some signs an employee may be experiencing SUD:
Missing Work Frequently
Regular attendance at work is a key component to operating a successful business, and failure to do so by any member of your team can negatively affect the flow of the business. For example, missed work can force other workers to pick up the slack, diminishing production and causing delays. Unfortunately, an uptick in absences by a formerly diligent employee or a failure to follow up after extended absences is a common sign that there is a substance use issue that has become more important to that individual than making the money they need to support themselves.
Failure to meet expectations while at work is another key sign someone may be struggling with a substance use disorder. This can often take the form of shoddy work, failure to attend meetings, or decreased productivity. In addition, inefficiencies like frequently arriving late, leaving early, or disappearing for stretches of time while on the clock for no apparent reason can also indicate an issue. An individual demonstrating a lack of care for their responsibilities or even the inability to continue meeting expectations though they express the desire to do so, can indicate SUD.
Showing Physical Signs of Substance Use Disorder
Often, the most obvious signs of a substance use disorder are physical signs. Physical signs can present themselves more dramatically if the employee is actively using a substance at work or working while intoxicated. However, physical signs are also possible when the individual is struggling to maintain active substance use at home and sober time at work.
While not every employee will demonstrate every sign, watch for these physical signs of substance use disorder:
- Slurred speech
- Bloodshot or glazed eyes
- Dilated or constricted pupils
- Unusual (track) marks on arms
- White residue on clothing or workspaces
- Personality changes
- Substantial weight loss or gain in a brief period
Different substances can present different symptoms, but any of these changes will be distinct from the typical behavior of a formerly reliable employee. Most will be distinguishable from those of sober employees.
Lack of Personal Hygiene
An employee may also begin to lack the desire to care for themselves, which could result in a lack of personal hygiene. This can include coming to work in dirty uniforms, being improperly dressed, or having body odor from lack of bathing. You may also be able to smell alcohol or another substance on their breath or skin.
A sign of potential substance abuse includes financial troubles. You know what your employee makes, as well as the general cost of living. While not every financial issue is a sign of substance use disorder, when taken with the other signs listed above, asking for pay advances or attempting to borrow money from coworkers can indicate a problem. Employees struggling with substance use may be spending too much money on their substance of choice and letting important bills and obligations fall behind.
The success of your safety procedures relies on your employees following guidelines and staying alert in any potentially dangerous situations. While this is a worst-case scenario, accidents in the workplace can happen more frequently when an employee is intoxicated at work or even while experiencing withdrawals at work. If an employee is under the influence while operating heavy machinery or performing demanding tasks, there is an increased risk of workplace accidents. This affects not only the employee but also other employees, your property, your insurance, and even your reputation.
What to Do If Employee Is Suspected of Using Drugs or Alcohol
If you’ve noticed more than one of the above signs of substance use disorder in your employee, your next step is to determine what to do if you think your employee is on drugs. As an employer, it is imperative to approach the situation carefully. SUD is a sensitive issue, and you must continue to respect your employee, as well as protect yourself, your other employees, and your business.
Signs of active substance use or intoxication at work should not be ignored, or you risk a potentially dangerous workplace issue. If you notice the above signs, you can legally consider the employee’s condition a “perceived” condition, which you must assess to determine if you should make accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Thus, acting protects both you and your employee in more than one way.
When you are ready to discuss the issue with your employee, it is important to do the following to ensure that you do so from a secure legal standpoint:
Understand Your Options
As an employer, it is crucial to understand that the ADA does designate substance use disorder as a protected disabling condition. As a result, you must provide reasonable accommodations for employees found to have SUD. This could include resources to assist the employee, time to address the condition with professional treatment, and more. However, while you can ask the employee if they drink alcohol or use illegal or prescription drugs, you cannot ask if they have SUD or have been in treatment for SUD in the past.
Know that the ADA protects people who have alcohol use disorder, but not those using illegal drugs. Similarly, the ADA protects individuals with dependency upon legal prescription medications. You must intervene if you believe the person is under the influence while at work, and you can ensure employees adhere to policies restricting intoxication in the workplace. You can also test for illegal drugs and alcohol while at work and create programs to address workplace intoxication.
However, if an employee is not intoxicated or using substances while at work, they may be protected by the ADA. You may need to work with the employee to create a reasonable accommodation to ensure that their behavior while not at work does not affect their performance. If, after reasonable accommodations are in place, the employee continues to perform poorly, they may be held to similar standards as other employees without SUD.
Keep it Confidential
Workplace issues should be approached carefully and discreetly. To begin, involve legal counsel, HR, and an employee healthcare navigator to ensure that any steps you take adhere to federal, state, and company policy. It is important to understand that the ADA requires employers to keep medical information confidential, and substance use disorders do fall under this category.
Any conversations about the mental health and of an employee should be handled privately. Request statements from supervisors who witnessed any changes in behavior or workplace incidents, but keep discussion regarding the matter between yourself, other key members of management, HR, the healthcare navigator, and the employee.
As an employer or manager, you play a crucial role in the overall work environment and mental health of your employees. Empathy can go a long way when handling a difficult situation like SUD and the workplace. Coming from a place of concern can make a significant difference in the outcome of the conversation.
It is understandable that dealing with this situation can be upsetting since the employee in question could be costing you money or creating an unsafe work environment. However, approaching the situation in anger will almost always be counterproductive and can result in the employee reacting hastily in ways you may not want.
Discuss Workplace Options
If you request a discussion regarding the employee’s unsuitable conduct at work or the employee requests help, and the employee admits to having SUD, you must discuss workplace options. If the employee is protected by the ADA, you must take specific steps to begin what the ADA refers to as an interactive process.
- You must participate in a mutual conversation with the employee, and you both may offer accommodations to benefit the employee.
- You can accept the employee’s suggestion or offer another until you come to an agreement that can make work tenable for the employee or help them seek treatment.
- You’ll likely need to determine which insurance benefits pertain to the situation. If you have an employee assistance plan or other programs to help, make this information available to the employee.
If the employee is not protected by ADA, such as if they admitted to an ongoing illegal drug addiction or possessed/used substances at work, you must present them with their options. Options may include attending substance use disorder treatment with the ability to return to employment in the future, especially if the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to your organization. In most instances, this will be a case-by-case decision that you will need to make.
In both situations, the agreement you reach with your employee should be clear and be recorded in a written document. This protects your interests and provides expectations for the employee’s continued employment. It should include repercussions for failure to adhere to the agreement as well as the accommodations the organization is making for the employee.
How to Help an Employee That Needs Treatment for Addiction
When an employee is struggling with substance use disorder, it can be a balancing act to show compassion while also functioning within your professional and legal limitations. Here are a few key tips to keep in mind when approaching an employee about addiction.
Know What to Expect
Don’t be surprised if you are faced with some level of resistance; denial is a common aspect of this disease. Your employee may be unwilling to admit their dependence on substances to themselves, let alone their employer. They may also not realize the impact their condition has had on their place of employment. Resistance and defensiveness should be expected.
Regardless of the amount of resistance you face, maintain a calm demeanor and express your care and concern. Responding in an argumentative or harsh manner can be counterproductive and shut down potential routes to help.
Acknowledge That SUD Is a Disease
Shame and fear of judgment can stop an employee from admitting that they need help. They may feel they are flawed as a person and don’t deserve help or support, especially from a non-family member. However, SUD is a legitimate disease and may even be considered a disabling condition under the ADA. Simply reminding your employee that SUD is a medical condition that can be treated can make a significant difference in how the conversation proceeds moving forward.
Share Your Observations
As mentioned above, it’s important to carefully document behaviors and situations where it was clear to you that your employee was struggling with SUD. This can include highlighting their absences or tardiness, their appearance, as well as their behavior toward their coworkers, customers, and upper management. Presenting observations to support your claims and concerns can have a significant impact on the denial your employee may be experiencing. Still, keep an open mind as the conversation begins because many of the signs associated with SUD could also be signs of other health concerns. It’s also important to be careful that sharing your observations doesn’t turn into a confrontation. The ability to listen and give your employee the benefit of the doubt can go a long way.
Providing resources can make a positive impact in helping an employee consider addiction treatment. As an employer, you have the ability to act as a primary resource. Keep a contact list of treatment providers and nonprofits in your area that can provide support and professional resources for treatment, especially those that work with your company’s insurance plan. If possible, refer your employee to your employee assistance program (EAP). The more resources you can provide for your employee, the better chance there is that your employee will pursue these resources, especially if there is an employment agreement in place that outlines expectations for returning to the workplace environment.
Review Your Health Plan
An employee may not realize that their workplace health insurance may offer some treatment coverage. Treatment doesn’t have to be expensive, especially when an employee is already potentially in debt or at the risk of completely losing their wages. Options such as outpatient versus inpatient treatment can reduce costs while still providing the support necessary for successful treatment. Give your employee the opportunity to review the options available under your insurance plan.
Gain the Help of a Navigator
This conversation about SUD can begin the long road to recovery, and success often depends upon the resources available and the support of friends, family, and even employers. While you may not hold a personal relationship with your employee, providing them with professional support can help guide them to treatment. However, it is important to reiterate that you must seek guidance from your attorney, HR, and/or a knowledgeable behavioral healthcare consultant so you can proceed with confidence that you are acting legally and protecting your business from reprisal.
If an employee demonstrates a willingness to seek help, one of the first steps includes a proper SUD assessment. A behavioral healthcare navigator can conduct an assessment and help you and your employee find legitimate means for treatment and recovery. Just as importantly, they can ensure that you do so in a way that preserves your workforce, your company’s reputation, and your relationship with your employee. behavioral healthcare navigator
Assist Employees in Finding Treatment for Addiction
Substance use disorder can affect your employee’s work even if they are not using substances at work or arriving intoxicated. However, substance use in the workplace can be downright dangerous for the well-being of your employee, their coworkers, and even your business’ reputation. There is the risk of financial harm, as well as emotional, mental, and physical harm for all involved.
It can be tempting to simply write off the employee when trouble arises, but a good employee going through a challenging time can be difficult to replace. In many instances, it can be more cost-effective and efficient to support a valued employee through SUD treatment than it would be to hire and train someone new. What’s more, you may be legally obligated to treat alcoholism or drug addiction as a protected disability under the ADA. Providing your employee with the resources they need to restore their professional and personal life is not only the right thing to do, but it is often your best legal option.
For more information about helping employees with a substance use disorder, request a consultation with Apogee System Consultants. We have decades of experience helping individuals and companies alike navigate behavioral health and substance use rehabilitation and can ensure your business regularly provides employees with what they need to manage their care.