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Spotting Workplace Substance Abuse and How to Address It

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According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 70% of the 14.8 million substance abusers in the USA are employed or holding at least one job. Separate studies have also revealed that 25% of workers in the 18 to 34 age bracket will use or have used illegal substances at some point in any given year.

These data do not necessarily mean that these people are using illegal substances while in the workplace or while performing their jobs. That said, abusing drugs or alcohol, regardless of the time and place, will affect how someone’s entire day will go and what they do.

While family and friends suffer the brunt of the distress and difficulties of coping with someone’s substance abuse problem, co-workers will also be affected. Every aspect of an individual’s life is affected, and when it comes to the workplace, not only will it affect that person’s job performance but also his co-workers’ as well.

Spotting the signs

Spotting an employee suffering from substance abuse is not always straightforward and easy. Most addicts learn to cover their tracks and mask their addiction. Nevertheless, there are warning signs that may indicate drug or alcohol abuse.

  • Attendance

Someone with a substance abuse problem is more likely to slip up in their attendance by being frequently tardy or file for personal days off without clear reasons. Co-workers may also notice unexplained absences during working hours.

  • Performance

An individual with substance abuse problem will develop loss of concentration which will lead to missing deadlines, inconsistent performance at work, and mistakes. Those whose jobs entail operating equipment will more likely cause frequent accidents in the workplace resulting in property damage or employee injury.

  • Personal hygiene

Addicts often exhibit a sudden lack of concern over their hygiene and physical appearance. Co-workers might notice them dressing differently than how they used to or being unconcerned when they are emitting unpleasant body odours or bad breath.

  • Change in behaviour

Mood swings or change in someone’s general behaviour is also a red flag. A person with chronic addiction may also exhibit extreme emotions such as having angry outbursts, aggressive responses, or hyperactivity. Exhibiting the complete opposite is possible as well- someone who has been sociable and outgoing may suddenly be apathetic or distant. People with addiction problems also suffer from paranoia and are prone to overreact to suggestions or perceived criticisms. They can also be defensive when the topic of addiction comes up.

  • Weight changes and health problems

While fluctuating weight can be attributed to a number of reasons, a sudden weight loss or weight gain may indicate an employee has a problem. Bloodshot eyes due to lack of sleep, dental problems, physical deterioration, and frequent hospitalization should be cause for concern as well.

People who are in the grips of substance abuse will also eventually find themselves under a worsening financial situation. They will most likely file for benefits and compensation claims. In extreme cases, employee theft may occur.

What next?

For a team member, supervisor, or manager, acting on a suspicion of a colleague’s substance abuse is a tricky thing to handle. For one thing, the above signs may not be caused by a drug problem. Someone suffering from depression or a serious medical condition may also exhibit these symptoms. Co-workers will also find it difficult to come forward for fear of causing someone to lose their job.

What one can do initially is to have proper documentation. For managers or supervisors, having records of employee attendance and performance is recommended. These will then be helpful when presented to human resources as they will most likely handle the next steps.

It is important for companies and organizations to have a clear drug and alcohol policy that is separate from their basic employment policies. This will provide proper guidance for employees when dealing with a co-worker suspected of substance abuse.


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