Handling Addiction in the Workplace: Your Responsibility as an Employer

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Nearly 30 people die every day because of a drunk driving-related crash. In 2017, drunk driving took a life every 48 minutes. While drunk driving deaths have gone down over the last 30 years, they’re still a major concern. In some cases, a person who has an addiction to drugs or alcohol has to drive as part of their job, which puts them on the road more often than a person in another occupation.

Addiction can cause problems in the workplace that range from reduced productivity to a greater risk of physical harm. On top of that, substance abuse is expensive, with costs related to crime, healthcare, and lost work totaling more than $740 billion each year. Since addiction affects all aspects of a person’s life, work included, employers must know the signs to look out for in order to help a person struggling with addiction.

Symptoms of Addiction: What to Look for in the Workplace

In general, addiction can lower an employee’s ability to perform work correctly or well. It can even have a negative impact on the success of your business overall. Economically, addiction can reduce product quality and employee productivity while increasing healthcare costs and absenteeism. Signs can be easy to miss, though — especially if you don’t know the employee or if they’re a functioning alcoholic who exhibits fewer symptoms than others. Here are common symptoms to watch out for:

  • Change in attendance or performance
  • Decline in personal appearance
  • Mood swings or a noticeably different attitude
  • Withdrawal from people or responsibilities
  • Different and concerning behavior patterns
  • Defensiveness when the topic of addiction is brought up

When an employer feels confident that an employee is struggling with addiction, they should offer a program that will help with the addiction. Employers can offer evaluation, treatment, and counseling for the addict, and they may also provide support for the individual’s family.

The Employer’s Responsibility

Even if you have the best intentions, you don’t want to launch into a conversation with your employee before you’re sure they’re having trouble and you’ve worked out the legalities of it all. Before you sit the employee down to tell them they need to check into rehab, make sure you’ve covered yourself:

  1. Document their behavior, including the specific times and days when troublesome behavior has occurred. This documentation will be helpful legally, as well as when you decide to speak with the employee and want to cite specific examples.
  2. Speak with your company’s HR department to determine which assistance programs are available. Coordinating with substance abuse social workers can enable employers to achieve sobriety in a safe and structured manner, as well as discover any mental health conditions that may be exacerbating the issue.
  3. Contact your lawyer to determine what you are legally allowed to say, as well as what you can’t do.

Once you’ve covered these bases, it’s time to speak with the employee. Instead of making it all about whether or not their job is at risk (your lawyer may have advised you on this), show authentic concern for the employee. If they agree to treatment, you can then clarify what they should expect regarding work once they’ve finished the program.

Occupations at Increased Risk for Addiction

Driving while intoxicated is a risk for anybody, regardless of their job or whether they’re on the clock. When your profession requires driving, though, addiction is an even greater concern. Truck drivers are especially at risk due to the size of their vehicles and the damage they can cause. Additionally, addiction is prevalent among truck drivers due to how taxing and lonely the occupation can be. When under the influence, truck drivers can experience difficulty doing the following:

  • Thinking or reasoning
  • Multi-tasking
  • Seeing or focusing clearly
  • Concentrating
  • Limiting the vehicle’s speed
  • Staying in the correct lane
  • Braking
  • Controlling the vehicle

Truck drivers aren’t the only ones who are at risk for addiction. According to the Washington Post and a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the top three professions most prone to addiction are hospitality (hotels and restaurants), mining, and construction. Management as well as arts and entertainment are also high on the list.

Why are these occupations more prone to addiction than others, though? Some professions have easy access to addictive substances. For example, medical professionals — another occupation high on the list — work around painkillers, while restaurant workers are often around alcohol. Other stressors like travel, high-risk situations, or isolation can make a person more susceptible to addiction.

The Realities of Recovery

Recovering from an addiction of any kind is difficult, scary, and highly personal. The process differs by the drug and the individual. Extremely addictive drugs like methamphetamine is especially difficult to recover from, with withdrawal potentially lasting over two weeks. The reason why methamphetamine is so difficult to recover from is that the dopamine release is stronger when compared to other addictive substances. The drug provides a strong pleasurable feeling due to the dopamine response; during withdrawal, not only is that dopamine hit not occurring as frequently as before, but even normal dopamine benefits are difficult to experience. This means that recovering meth addicts have difficulty experiencing pleasure.

Addicts in recovery are not always cured, but they can find healthy ways to manage their addiction. For some addicts, relapse is a normal part of the process. Since addiction has such deep roots, relapse doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatment failed — just that it needs to be modified to better suit the individual.

Everyone in an addict’s life, from their family to their co-workers and employer, should be compassionate and understanding during recovery. In the workplace, employers can educate their employees about addiction, especially if they’re in an industry that’s more prone to it. Workplaces should also provide outlets for stress: Encourage your employees to talk to you about issues they’re facing, suggest a personal day when you can see they’re overwhelmed, and make sure everyone is taking the breaks they’re entitled to.


Brooke Faulkner is a mother of two and wilderness enthusiast. When she's not writing, she can usually be found zipping around the mountains on her ATV.

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