Troubleshooting a drug or alcohol problem in the workplace may seem like the last thing a small business leader should have to think about. However, not attending to the issue can land a small business in hot water. Here are some reasons to be prepared that can directly affect the livelihood of any small business:
- From a risk mitigation perspective, it’s wise to know what to do and have an effective Human Resources response in place.
- At any company, the health and wellness of its employees can impact work productivity and engagement, and in turn the bottom line— but for small businesses that aren’t sufficiently prepared or don’t have a wellness program in place, the impact of an untreated drug or alcohol addiction can be very big. (Learn how treatment programs for working professionals and others at FHE Health are helping people address a drug or alcohol problem so they can return to work and/or stay productive in a job.)
- It’s also well within the realm of possibility that someone in employment exhibits signs of a drug or alcohol problem. A great majority of adults with substance use disorders are active members of the workforce (as many as three-quarters of those employed, the National Safety Council has estimated); and, if recent data from the Centers for Disease Control is any indication, the prevalence and severity of drug and alcohol problems may only be on the rise. Grimly, last year saw the highest number of overdose deaths recorded yet, according to the CDC’s December 2024 report.
There is a good case to be made, then, for any start-up or small business that has not already done so to spend some time developing a clear plan for when, not if, a drug or alcohol problem may surface. On this note, what follow are four keys to helping an employee with a drug or alcohol problem….
1. Know what signs to look for
A drug or alcohol problem isn’t always immediately easy to spot in the workplace. Often, the signs and symptoms of a developing addiction can be harder to mask at home with immediate family members. A spouse may notice a growing pattern of binge drinking, late nights at the bar, and ballooning credit card bills, but these things aren’t necessarily detectable at work; and, while a person with a substance use disorder may be more apt to talk candidly with their loved ones, they may be more reluctant to discuss these issues with coworkers or a supervisor.
Still, even the most high-functioning alcoholic or addict can’t hide the effects of their disease at work forever. Eventually (if not sooner) certain signs come to light. Be mindful of the following indications that drugs or alcohol may be turning into a problem:
- A pattern of not showing up to work, calling in sick, being tardy, or skipping out on work. For some people with a substance abuse problem, payday can be a trigger: An employee may call in sick that day or leave work excessively early, because of cravings to go see their dealer or head to the bar early. Excessive breaks during the workday or trips to the bathroom can also point to a potential substance use disorder.
- A pattern of self-isolating and avoiding colleagues and social interactions.
- Physical symptoms: tremors, bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, the smell of alcohol on the breath, a runny nose— even sleeping at work.
- Poor hygiene and a disregard for appearance.
- Unexplainable mood changes and/or erratic behavior (outbursts at others, fluctuations between a tired or depressed state versus extremely high energy, etc.).
- Interpersonal problems with colleagues.
- Changes in job performance and the ability to focus and stay motivated and engaged with work.
2. Intervene: Talk with the employee
Any of the above signs could mean an employee is struggling with substance abuse. (Of course, only a trained addiction professional can give a proper diagnosis.) The best time to intervene is when one or more of these signs is impacting the employee’s job performance. That’s when it’s time to schedule a confidential meeting with them, as their supervisor, to discuss the issue in an open, empathetic, and discreet way. If you have a HR professional on staff, they can be a helpful third party in the conversation.
On the other hand, many small businesses don’t have a HR department. In this case, supervisors may find these suggestions helpful for how to talk one-on-one with an employee who may be struggling with drugs or alcohol:
- Find a quiet space to talk that is comfortable and conducive to a private conversation.
- Address the concern immediately, gently, and directly.
- Keep the focus of the conversation on the job performance issues.
- Try to describe the behaviors you’re seeing in an observational manner.
- Invite feedback about what might be going on as part of a two-way conversation.
- Try to listen attentively and empathetically. As an active listener, you can also ask open, non-judgmental questions.
- Keep the focus on job performance issues.
- Assure the employee that your meeting is totally confidential— the one exception being if they pose a threat to their self or others.
3. Encourage them to seek help and point them in the direction of potential resources and supports
Try to be sensitive to language at this juncture. A good rule of thumb is to avoid terms like “addiction” or “substance abuse,” because while a supervisor may have a hunch that the problem is drugs or alcohol, only a qualified doctor can diagnose. Sometimes, too, these words can put people on the defensive. Ultimately, the conversation is about “health concerns” as these may relate to changes in job performance.
This terminology can also smooth the transition to a discussion of resources and supports that are available. Sometimes that discussion may mean pointing an employee in the direction of the company’s employee assistance program (EAP). If you don’t have an EAP, then providing a list of counseling and treatment options can be helpful, although ideally these will be well-vetted in advance.
Job loss is a common fear among workers with substance abuse issues. Many people may not be aware of Family Medical Leave (FMLA) that entitles eligible employees to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for treatment.
Individuals who are not eligible for FMLA or whose FMLA has been exhausted should contact HR to inquire if they can request an unpaid personal leave of absence. (Unlike FMLA, a personal leave does not guarantee job protection upon return to work.) One of the best ways to show an employee that their health and wellbeing are a priority is to ask them if they are aware of these leaves— and if they’re not aware, to educate them.
4. Follow up
Following up with the employee after they have had enough time to seek treatment and take responsibility for their health is crucial. When you follow up, you reinforce the message that you care about employees and their health and wellbeing. You also convey that substance abuse as it affects the workplace is an issue you take seriously.
The follow-up conversation can also be a good opportunity to invite the employee’s feedback about what if any additional accommodations they might need moving forward in long-term recovery.
Barbara Dunkiel is Human Resources Director at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health and has over 30 years of HR experience in the healthcare industry.