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Ted is an account manager in a productive financial firm. He’s fun-loving and always a hoot at the company happy hours. But over the five years Ted has worked at the firm, his drinking has escalated. As he gained responsibilities and more stress, the weekly happy hour quickly transitioned into a drink every day after work, and then a few drinks. Recently, Ted started having a few cocktails over his lunch. The other day, his boss found him asleep at his desk.

Unfortunately, Ted’s story is not unusual. Drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is a common problem in this country. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 70 percent of the 14.8 million Americans who abuse drugs are employed. And 24 percent of workers admit drinking during the day at least once in the past year. When an employee abuses drugs or alcohol, there can be serious ramifications, including injuries, absenteeism, traffic accidents and lost productivity.

To address drug and alcohol abuse among their employees, there are a few key things employers can do. For one, all companies should have written substance abuse policies prohibiting drug and alcohol use at work. Companies should ask all employees to read and sign an agreement stating they understand those policies. Secondly, employers and supervisors should be on the lookout for signs of drug and alcohol abuse. And thirdly, employers should promptly and properly deal with employees they suspect of abusing.

Signs an Employee Is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

Identifying an employee who is abusing drugs or alcohol isn’t as easy as one might think. The first step is knowing what to look for. Substance abuse in the workplace may manifest in the following ways:

Attendance problems: Employees who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to be late, use sick days and call in with unplanned, last minute absences. Sometimes patterns arise, where sick days repeatedly fall on a Monday or Friday, or after payday.
Performance issues: Employees with substance abuse problems may miss deadlines or quotas, turn in careless work or fail to complete assignments.
Strained work relationships: An employee who is abusing drugs or alcohol may become short tempered, belligerent or argumentative. He or she may avoid talking with co-workers at the water cooler and keep to him or herself. Mood patterns may form, with grumpiness in the mornings or following weekends or holidays.
Behavior issues: Certain behaviors may signal drug or alcohol abuse, either on or off the job. These include the smell of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, staggering or slurring speech, excessive laughter or inappropriate loudness, tremors, excessive use of breath mints or mouthwash, avoiding meetings or contact with supervisors after lunch, and sleeping at work.
Just one of these signs doesn’t automatically mean an employee has a drinking or drug problem. Symptoms of abuse often come in groups of two or more.

If a supervisor suspects an employee is abusing drugs or alcohol, a good starting point is to gather evidence. Supervisors should document any and all performance problems, complete with dates and times. Companies often do not have the authority to do mandatory drug or alcohol testing. However, in most cases, companies can do voluntary testing; for example, when an employee denies intoxication and offers to take a test. Supervisors should review signs of abuse with an Employee Assistance Program counselor before meeting with the employee. From there, here are some steps an employer can take:

Schedule a face to face: A supervisor should notify the employee of the time and place of a meeting to discuss the employee’s performance. The supervisor should plan to hold the meeting in a private place.
Tread lightly: Unless the employee has been obviously impaired on the job, a supervisor should not directly address the substance abuse in question. Instead, the supervisor should keep the focus on the employee’s job performance. He or she should refer the employee to EAP and clearly explain that if the employee fails to correct the performance issues, he or she may be disciplined or terminated. A supervisor cannot force an employee to use EAP services but can strongly encourage the person to do so.
Plan for denial: Denial is a common reaction to confrontation in substance abusers. If an employee denies the addiction and refuses help from EAP, the supervisor should continue to document problems and discipline the employee if necessary.
Consider intervention: In cases where an employee has been intoxicated or under the influence of drugs at work, an employer may consider an intervention. During an intervention, colleagues and other people important to the addicted person confront him or her and encourage professional help. It’s important to note that a trained professional – not a supervisor – should lead a work-based intervention. Supervisors can contact an EAP counselor for more information on the process.
Avoid enabling: Just like family members should show some tough love to a loved one who is abusing drugs or alcohol, a supervisor should do the same. Supervisors should avoid doing things like lending the employee money, covering up for the employee, giving the employee’s work to others, making excuses for the employee or trying to counsel the employee on their own.
Put policies in place: Employers can address substance abuse in their employee populations as a whole by implementing drug and alcohol policies. By putting these rules in writing, employers can clearly explain what they will and will not tolerate with regard to drugs and alcohol.
Offer support: To help employees with substance abuse problems get the help they need, employers should offer comprehensive health plans that cover all stages of treatment for substance abuse disorders. The best plans cover treatment, counseling, aftercare and educating employees on the dangers of abusing alcohol and drugs.
[See: How to Find the Best Mental Health Professional for You.]

If an Employee is Under the Influence on the Job

When an employee is clearly intoxicated or under the influence of drugs at work, supervisors have more power when it comes to addressing the problem. Before anything else, a supervisor should alert the company’s employee assistance program to the situation and be ready to refer the employee to EAP’s services. If the employee has duties that put other people’s safety in jeopardy, such as driving, operating heavy equipment, caring for patients or working around weapons, the supervisor should restrict the employee from doing these jobs.

If the company has one, the supervisor can also ask the employee to spend some time in the company’s health unit. The health unit can then make a call on whether or not the employee is indeed under the influence and offer an alcohol or drug test.

If the employee’s behavior is erratic or disruptive, the supervisor can ask the employee to leave (with a ride from a taxi, fellow employee or family member). If an employee becomes belligerent, an employer can get law enforcement involved.

Any time an employer suspects an employee is using drugs or alcohol, the supervisor should document everything. This includes any performance issues, absences, problems with co-workers or incidents that sent the employee home.

Overall, the goal of the employer should be to help an addicted employee get the help he or she needs to be as healthy and productive as possible.

US News. Aug. 4, 2016

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