Substance abuse, whether it’s through alcohol or legally prohibited drugs, can be a serious burden to employers. Workplace and family issues can cause an employee to develop an addiction problem, and employers need to recognise this and work to help their workers deal with the issues that arise.
This is a difficult area. We all want to give the benefit of the doubt to loyal employees. But we cannot ignore the signs of substance abuse in the workplace because of the dangers that other members of the workforce may be subjected to, let alone the employee who has the addiction problem.
How to spot an addiction problem
It is not always easy to spot a problem. We like to think our employees are well adjusted and committed to their work, and will come to us if they are experiencing addiction difficulties. Chances are they won’t, however, because addiction to drugs or alcohol frequently makes people very secretive and therefore keen to conceal it.
There are a number of signs that may signal a possible substance abuse problem.
- Being late to work
- Being unreliable
- Not turning up for business appointments
- Going to meetings smelling of alcohol or appearing unfocused
- Performing erratically in the workplace
- Taking unnecessary risks
These are issues that need to be spotted and dealt with, because they can be a danger not only to the individual but also to the wider workforce. This type of behaviour can also cost an employer money, so identifying conduct that gives rise to suspicions of substance abuse should be part of the way we write our workplace policies.
We need to be aware that if employees have a problem, they can damage other people as well the business as a whole. An employee who is not fully aware of what he or she is doing due to intoxication through alcohol or drugs presents a clear and present danger to others. If they are responsible for machinery, they could injure, even kill a fellow employee. In IT, one wrong keystroke could have catastrophic consequences.
Any of these outcomes could cost our businesses money as we try to mitigate the fall out. An addicted employee is also much more likely to be less productive, so we should bear that in mind.
Searching for solutions
Every business needs to have a written policy in place that spells out what is and is not acceptable in the workplace in relation to substance abuse. Every employee needs to sign an agreement as part of his or her contract of employment. Drug testing is mandatory in many employment sectors (for example the armed forces and police), so enforcing this policy could be an option for employers.
If an employee is found to have been abusing substances, for example through a sample submitted to an oral fluid lab test, then we need to work to support that person as part of our duty of care. We need to find ways to assist people with substance abuse problems, both to help them as individuals and to protect the company. The aim is to work to reach a win-win situation.