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Responding to Substance Abuse in Your Workplace

April 1, 2021 - minute read

In terms of safety, productivity and financial drain, the cost of leaving substance abuse unchecked in an hourly workforce cannot be overstated. As an employer, it is critical that you address it in all its forms: both in policy and action.

The former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that drug-related problems in the workplace amounts to nearly $200 billion in lost productivity annually. And according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), more than 70 percent of those abusing illicit drugs in America are active in the workforce.

With statistics like that, it’s natural to assume you may already have employees who are dealing with some form of addiction or substance abuse and just not know about it. Fortunately, there are steps you can take now to address it. Assisting even a few workers can make a significant difference in decreasing health care claims, lowering absenteeism, and negative morale as a whole.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

The most common illicit drugs abused on the job are marijuana and cocaine. However, other illicit drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine, as well as alcohol, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and prescription drugs can all be abused by employees. Despite its various forms, however, there are common warning signs of their usage by your workforce.

By learning the signs of possible substance abuse, which contributes heavily to “reasonable suspicion”, and implementing a strong employee handbook policy for responding, you and your managers can address concerning behavior efficiently.

According to SHRM, here are some of the behavioral characteristics that may act as warning signs of substance abuse:

  • Absenteeism, particularly without communication, or excessive use of sick days.
  • Frequent disappearances from worksites or long, unexplained breaks.
  • Work performance that alternates between periods of high and low productivity.
  • Mistakes attributable to inattention, poor judgment or bad decisions – increase in accidents.
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating or recalling details and instructions.
  • Problems with interpersonal relations with co-workers.
  • Progressive deterioration in personal appearance and hygiene.
  • Increasing personal and professional isolation.
  • Physical signs such as exhaustion, hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech or an unsteady walk, or anything resembling a hangover.

Note: these characteristics are not exclusive to substance abuse problems, but could also be indicators of stress, depression, or health issues. There may be legitimate reasons for employees’ symptoms, such as bloodshot eyes due to allergies or absenteeism due to legitimate health reasons, so it is important that you follow the proper investigation procedure

Tips for Addressing Substance Abuse with Employees

Once you’ve reached reasonable suspicion, your next step will be to address with action. Here are some tips for making sure you go about addressing your concerns with optimum results:

  • Be patient and mindful in confronting employees. Many substance abusers are reluctant to seek help because they are in denial, fear being branded or retaliated against, and distrust promises of confidentiality. Whether it is illegal substance abuse or cases of legalized marijuana or prescription drug misuse, employees may not open up until they feel you are seeking to understand and help.
  • Recognize that various drugs and forms of substance abuse vary greatly and may require different solutions. To address sensitive subjects like alcoholism or opioid abuse, it’s invaluable to approach each type of substance abuse conversation with open-mindedness. Each employee will require individual management because they will be facing unique circumstances. If real solutions are to be reached, you will need to treat each case separately.
  • Bypass full-scale investigations with dialogues when possible. Performance meetings or periodic reviews may be the best way to broach the subject of suspected substance abuse with your employee initially. Candid discussions about troubling patterns of behavior can often illuminate legitimate reasons for observable symptoms. It can also allow you to work directly in determining your employee’s needs in creating a recovery plan.
  • Prioritize reasonable accommodations. Offering protected leave for treatment, frequent breaks/flexible scheduling during recovery, or access employee assistance programs (EAPs) are some of the best ways to retain workers while resolving issues of substance abuse in your workforce. It can also protect you against discrimination claims and compliance-related litigation. The DOL’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has compiled various methods in which you can accommodate employees with substance-abuse problems here.
  • Be cautious when taking negative employment action. Depending on your company drug policy, you may take a strict stance on substance use as a business. You may even choose a no-tolerance policy and take disciplinary action—including termination—based on job performance problems resulting from alcohol or drug abuse. However, it is critical to document performance problems and reasonable suspicion to avoid discrimination claims.
  • Stay cognizant of employment laws—both federally and state-level. Whether it’s protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for substance abuse treatment or safeguards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you need to be consistent in your treatment of all employees under all applicable laws. State will have their own spin on illegal substance regulations, so be sure to consider which will be most important for compliance. This is especially prevalent with legalized marijuana.

Fight Substance Abuse with Workforce Management

When it comes to navigating substance abuse and compliance, especially around patchwork state and federal laws, it helps to have a team of HR experts on your side. With EPAY’s HR Consulting Services, things like reasonable suspicion and updating substance abuse policies are a whole lot easier.

We even offer a customizable Learning Management System (LMS) for training your employees on the dangers of prescription drug abuse and your managers on recognizing employees under the influence. Looking for more guidance? Watch our webinar, “Reasonable Suspicion: What to Do if You Suspect an Employee is Under the Influence at Work” and request a personalized demo of our system today!

Filed Under: Compliance Employee Benefits ADA HR Management