Substance Abuse In The Workplace: What Every Employer Should Know
Drugs and alcohol extract a heavy toll on those who are close to a person with a substance abuse problem. But they can also cause great difficulties in the workplace, where the reliability and on-the-job performance of addicts will inevitably decline over time. In the American economy, lost productivity related to substance abuse is estimated to add up to hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and, for individual businesses attempting to survive on marginal profits in a sluggish economy, it is especially vital to have employees who can be counted on in a pinch.
But despite all that is at stake, employers should recognize that addiction is a disease and not simply an irresponsible lifestyle choice, and workers who are suffering from the effects of a substance abuse problem should be treated with compassion and respect as long as they are willing to be open and truthful about what is happening in their lives.
Managers may be able to evaluate the performance of their workers accurately, but it is of course extremely difficult to ascertain why a formerly productive and judicious employee has begun to falter on the job. People often have hidden personal problems or various types of health troubles that can negatively impact their workplace efficiency, either temporarily or permanently, so it is important that bosses and managers tread lightly when they seek to discover the reason a reliable employee has suddenly been giving a less-than-stellar effort or failing to produce results.
Recognizing The Signs
When substance abuse is the problem, there will be indicators that can help clue employers in to what has been going on. It may take a sharp eye to spot them, but they will be present.
Some of the physical signs or symptoms that might suggest an employee’s drug or alcohol use has gotten out of control could include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite
- Dental problems
- Slovenly or unprofessional appearance
- The presence of unusual odors on or around the employee
- Slurred speech
- Sleeping on the job
- Shaking or tremors
In addition to these tell-tale physical symptoms, the behavior of addicts or alcoholics will likely change in noticeable ways as well. Some behaviors to look out for would include:
- Frequent tardiness
- Mood swings, fits of irrational anger, or sudden bouts of hyperactivity
- Sloppiness in carrying out routine assignments
- Refusal to spend time with co-workers during lunch hours or in off-hours (when this activity had been normal before)
- Loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities
- Actions or choices that lead to injuries or accidents on or off the job, with hazy explanations about what took place and exactly why it happened
Above all else, when the issue is substance abuse, employers and co-workers should learn to trust their instincts. Because substance abuse is so common, most of us have likely encountered it in our families or among friends at some point in our lives, and consequently we are usually capable of recognizing the signs of substance abuse.
The Value Of Preparation
It is always better to anticipate trouble before it arrives so you will be prepared to handle it if and when it comes. This is certainly true when the subject is substance abuse in the workplace, and that is why all employers should have clearly established policies that dictate how addiction and problem drinking or drug abuse will be handled. These policies should be fully disclosed and explained succinctly in written form, in a document or handbook that will be considered required reading for all employees. And just to make sure there is no confusion or uncertainly, employees should be required to a sign a form indicating that they understand the company’s substance abuse policies and will accept any and all consequences of their actions.
But while employers have some leeway in this area, they cannot dictate automatic dismissal if a substance abuse problem is proven to exist. Federal and state disability laws protect the rights of workers with drug or alcohol addictions if they are willing to seek treatment for their dependency, and it is incumbent upon a business owner or manager to speak with a company attorney before instituting substance abuse policies to make sure everything is strictly legal and in synch with existing civil rights statutes.
Employers must be ready, willing, and able to help their workers get the assistance they need should substance abuse become an issue. To make sure they are prepared to do so, businesses should have insurance policies that will cover the costs of drug/alcohol treatment and rehabilitation for workers should they ever be required. Of course managers themselves could someday encounter substance abuse problems, which means that it is really in everyone’s best interests to have adequate health insurance to cover this contingency. And just so they are sure what is out there, employers should fully research drug and alcohol treatment options available in their communities, so that if and when employees need this information it will be available and accessible.
Asking The Right Questions, Getting The Right Answers
When substance abuse is suspected, an employer should approach his or her employee in a way that is open and honest but not confrontational. This is the best way to get answers, and it is the most compassionate path to take when the issue is a disease like addiction. Nevertheless, managers and bosses have a need and a right to discover the truth from their employees about what is happening when workplace performance is suffering, and if an employer cannot get a straightforward response from a worker who is failing to do his job correctly, termination will be a legally permitted option.
But the ultimate goal of any workplace intervention should be to help the person in question get the help he or she needs. With hard work, determination, and a relentlessly positive attitude, addiction can be overcome, and it is in the best interest of every employer to offer whatever assistance they can to men and women whose lives have been momentarily sidetracked by drug or alcohol dependency.
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