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helping an employee with an addiction.
October 19, 2017

What to Do About an Employee With a Substance Abuse Problem

helping an employee with an addiction.Employee substance abuse is a frequent issue in the workplace— one that managers and higher-ups must handle with vigilance and discretion. Get equipped with this quick but exhaustive guide that every employer can benefit from reading.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know the right way to proceed when an employer suspects or has tangible evidence that an employee has a problem with substance abuse. Whether the substance of abuse concerned is alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs used for nonmedical purposes, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, the fact is that the situation will not get better on its own. The employer must act. The question is, what should you do about an employee with a substance abuse problem?


Just as every person is different, so are the ways in which they react when abusing alcohol or drugs. Some signs of substance abuse problems are obvious, regardless of individual tolerances, while some pertain more to alcohol or specific drugs. Other symptoms could be indications of something else going on, such as a medical condition or mental health issue.

An employee showing one or several of the following signs may have a substance abuse problem:

  • Chronic lateness
  • Not showing up for work at all
  • Missing work excessively
  • Often leaving work early
  • Appearing to be busy, yet not accomplishing anything
  • Smell of alcohol
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Red nose and cheeks
  • Sudden unexplained weight loss
  • Frequently complains of upset stomach

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence lists other common signs of drug or alcohol abuse including, trembling hands, irritability, mood swings, needing a drink to feel “normal,” headache, insomnia, drinking alone, temporary blackouts or memory loss after drinking.

In addition, an employee who gets into legal trouble, has a DUI while driving, gets into an accident or accidents, hurts himself or others, frequently gets into fights, displays an explosive temper, is unable to concentrate on a task, withdraws from interaction with co-workers, lies about where he or she has been after unexplained absences from desk or workstation could well be signs of abusing alcohol or drugs. The more frequent and severe the signs, the more likely the employee not only has a problem with substance abuse, but may indeed be dependent or addicted to alcohol or drugs or both.

Any employee who exhibits excessive sweating, shaking, appears highly anxious, is nauseous, has clammy skin is likely undergoing withdrawal from alcohol or drugs. There may be other symptoms, depending on the substance, including seizures and treatment may be necessary.

For the employer, an employee with substance abuse problems can result in lost productivity, increased medical costs, and liability if the employee causes property damage or injury to self or others while on the job.


Entrepreneur cited a 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health statistic that of 18.9 million adults with dependence or abuse, about 52 percent were employed. A 2016 Fortune article, citing a statistic from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) said that an estimated 70 percent of the approximately 14.8 million Americans using illegal drugs are employed.

NCADD points out that employees with alcohol problems are 2.7 times more likely to have injury-related absences than workers without drinking problems. Other shocking facts listed by NCADD are that analyses of workplace fatalities showed that 11 percent of the victims had been drinking, 24 percent of workers in a large federal study reported drinking at work or during the workday at least once in the past year, and one-fifth of employees and managers in a large cross-section of industries and company size said that a co-worker’s drinking (on or off the job) jeopardized their own safety and productivity.

The costs attributed to employee substance abuse are staggering. A 2011 article in the journal Pain Medicine pegged total workplace costs of prescription opioid abuse, just one of the many kinds of addiction, at $25.6 billion. Total societal costs were estimated at $55.7 billion in 2007 (tallied in 2009 US dollars).

As part of a series dedicated to the opioid epidemic, Hartford Business cited analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by the Wall Street Journal in 2016 that tallied the total financial cost of the opioid epidemic in this country at $78.5 billion. That figure includes $16.3 billion in lost worker productivity and higher disability, as well as $14 billion paid out by health insurers.

A recent study by the National Safety Council of 501 U.S. employers with more than 50 employees found that more than 70% said they’d been affected by prescription drug abuse at work, mostly from absent workers, decreased productivity, workers using substances at work, and positive drug tests. The NSC found that 76% of the employers surveyed are not offering training on how to identify signs of substance abuse, 81% don’t have a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy, 41% who test all employees for drugs don’t test for synthetic opioids, and only 19% say they feel “extremely prepared” to deal with the prescription drug crisis. On a positive note, more than 70% of employers said they would like to assist employers in returning to work following treatment.


Given the scope and seriousness of substance abuse in the U.S., what’s important for both you as the employer and the employee or employees who may have a substance abuse problem is access to resources. Here is where the employer has both a moral, legal and fiduciary responsibility to provide adequate resources to all company employees about substance abuse and treatment.

Examples of resources include, but are not limited to:

  • Community resources for substance abuse prevention agencies
  • Educational materials or handouts such agencies may be able to provide
  • List of support groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and other 12-Step and self-help groups
  • List of treatment facilities
  • Other resources

Educational material and lists of treatment facilities and support groups are a logical place for an employee with a substance abuse problem to start to begin to deal with the issue. Such resources must be available to all company employees.


Employers must find out what treatment is covered under the current employee medical benefits as well as any community resources that may be included. Of importance is the fact that inpatient or resident treatment may be in the range of $30,000-$50,000. Outpatient treatment for substance abuse problems is often much less expensive and potentially more attractive and feasible for the employee to consider entering.


It is vitally important that employers talk with their attorney or legal representation about company and personal liability for an employee with a substance abuse problem. Long before the need to address a situation where an employee has such a problem, the employer should have created and put into place a comprehensive substance abuse policy. Other areas to cover with the employer’s attorney are the legal ramifications of firing an employee, including drinking on the job, compliance with state and federal law governing employment and termination. You will also want to ensure your company has sufficient liability insurance to protect against acts and damage caused by employees with a substance abuse problem.

Establishment of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is strongly recommended for businesses of all sizes. EAPs in the federal government date back to the 1940s and were originally started to deal with alcohol problems in the workplace. NCADD says EAPs are the most effective way to address alcohol and drug workplace problems. EAPs are confidential and provide short-term counseling for many kinds of problems in addition to alcohol and drug issues. Research shows that treatment for drug and alcohol problems will likely pay for itself because of reduced healthcare costs once the employee enters recovery.


Typical substance abuse policies should include the following elements:

  • They must be written
  • Include a training program for supervisors
  • Include an employee awareness and education program
  • Provide access to Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Mandate a drug testing program, if appropriate

Note that drug-testing for alcohol and drugs is mandatory for employees in safety-sensitive industries of aviation, trucking, mass transit, pipelines, railroads, and other transportation industries.


It’s never easy to let an employee go, whether for deficient performance, stealing, drug or alcohol problems or other issues where the employer has the legal right to terminate an individual’s employment. Should the employee have violated terms of the company’s substance abuse policy, refused treatment, consistently entered treatment and relapsed with no commitment to getting help to overcome drug or alcohol problems, the employer may still not be off the hook. What you must do is ensure you’ve exhausted all your options to encourage and/or demand that the employee demonstrate a willingness to get help, continue treatment and/or counseling, and go through any suspension or leave without pay that the company policy on substance abuse mandates.

Keep in mind that retaining an employee is often better than resorting to termination, with an important caveat. The employee must show that he or she will conscientiously undergo treatment and demonstrate alcohol- and drug-free behavior after treatment. Failure to abide by the terms of the company substance abuse policy, after perhaps allowing for one instance of violation, may leave the employer no choice but to implement the employee’s termination.

While you cannot force an employee to help him or herself deal with a substance abuse problem, you can offer encouragement and support for the employee who truly wants to get better. Ultimately, as an employer, you must answer to your company officers, board and shareholders. If substance abuse problems by employees jeopardizes your company’s profits, reputation, employee morale and investment or financial prospects, you may need to make the tough call to let an uncooperative or unwilling substance-abusing employee go.

In summary, employers are urged to be vigilant with regard to the issue of employee substance abuse, become knowledgeable on the subject, develop and implement a comprehensive company substance abuse policy, ensure all employees receive a copy of the policy and sign an acknowledgement to that effect, create or use a third-party employee assistance program, verify health insurance policies to determine what kind of treatment for substance abuse is covered, implement a drug-testing program, check with legal representation regarding liability issues, when and how to terminate employees for non-compliance of company policy governing substance abuse.

Finally, remember that it’s costly and time-consuming to hire and train replacement workers for employees let go because of substance abuse problems. Giving such workers a second chance to demonstrate their willingness to go into treatment, get clean and remain sober may be more beneficial and less costly in the end for all concerned.


Entrepreneur, “4 Steps to Deal With an Employee’s Substance Abuse Problem.” Retrieved September 27, 2017

Fortune, “What to Do About an Employee with a Drug Problem.” Retrieved September 27, 2017

Hartford, “Opioid scourge puts business in the crosshairs.” Retrieved September 28, 2017

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD), “Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace.” Retrieved September 27, 2017

National Safety Council, “How the Prescription Drug Crisis is Impacting American Employers.” Retrieved September 28, 2017

U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “Work-Life: Employee Assistance Programs.” Retrieved September 28, 2017

Pain Medicine, “Societal Costs of Prescription Opioid Abuse, Dependence, and Misuse in the United States.” Retrieved September 28, 2017