Addressing Substance Abuse in the Workplace

HR & Safety

Seminar series emphasizes steps to take: and not take: when problems are suspected

With a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, CBIA and Solutions Employee Assistance Program (EAP) have teamed up to offer the Drug-Free Solutions@Work seminar series. Seminars were held in December in Cromwell and January in North Haven, and a third is scheduled for Feb. 9 from 7:30 to 11 a.m. at the Holiday Inn in Waterbury.

The free programs are designed to provide employers, supervisors, and HR professionals with information and advice on preventing employee substance abuse: a problem that can have devastating consequences for businesses large and small.

Scope and Impact

According to Solutions EAP, 75.3% of illicit drug users age 18 and over are employed, and 79.6% of adults reporting heavy alcohol use are employed. Well over half (60.4%) of adults classified with substance dependence or abuse are employed full-time.

On-the-job drug or alcohol use can lead to increased risk of accidents and injuries and lower levels of productivity and morale. Research indicates that between 10% and 20% of the nation’s workers who die on the job test positive for alcohol or other drugs. In fact, industries with the highest rates of drug use are the same as those at a high risk for occupational injuries, including the construction, mining, manufacturing, and wholesale industries.

Not only do workers who abuse drugs or alcohol endanger themselves, they also put their coworkers and the public at risk and can jeopardize their company’s operations, financial stability, and reputation.

Mark Soycher, CBIA’s human resources counsel, says that employees who abuse drugs and/or alcohol

  • Make twice as many mistakes
  • Are tardy and absent more frequently
  • Use significantly more healthcare
  • benefits
  • Work at about 65% of their potential

In spite of the problems it causes, however, substance abuse is all too easy to ignore.

“Most supervisors and managers are not comfortable confronting this issue,” says George “Bud” Wassell, director of Solutions EAP. “It’s a lot easier to sweep it under the rug.”

Recognize the Signs

Although it is not your job as a supervisor to diagnose substance abuse, recognizing the warning signs is often the first step toward eliminating the problem. Here are some observable signs identified by Solutions that may indicate that an employee has a drug or alcohol problem.

  • Deteriorating performance, as evidenced by accidents, unsafe or inefficient work practices, patterns of absenteeism, confusion or lack of concentration, inflexibility or unwillingness to accept direction, and frequent interpersonal conflicts
  • Changes in physical appearance or condition, including disheveled appearance, poor grooming, the inappropriate wearing of sunglasses or long sleeves, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurred speech, drowsiness, hyperactivity, disorientation, constant dry mouth, lip licking, frequent nasal irritation, and flushed skin
  • Behavioral changes, such as uncharacteristically passive or aggressive behavior, mood changes after lunch or breaks, argumentativeness, avoidance of supervisor, overreaction to real or imagined criticism, complaints from coworkers or customers, frequent requests to borrow money, frequent calls or unauthorized visits from outsiders

Document, Document, Document

Even if you have identified signs of substance abuse, it can be difficult to prove you have a reasonable suspicion of employee impairment as defined by state law. Such proof is necessary in order to legally require an employee to submit to a urine test for drug or alcohol abuse.

“That’s why proper documentation is so important,” says Soycher, “whether your goal is to build a case for termination or to get treatment for an employee.”

He suggests using descriptive, nonjudgmental language and recording both positive and negative workplace incidents to ensure an accurate record of how substance abuse affects an employee’s ability to do his or her job.

Leave Therapy to the Therapists

Employers also want to be careful about crossing the line between an employee’s work and personal life, no matter how strong the urge to help. It’s your job to offer EAP resources or other types of assistance, says Soycher, not to serve as a counselor or therapist.

“If you’re simply offering a shoulder to cry on or an opportunity to vent, you’re not steering the person down the right path. In fact, you may be doing greater harm than good. Helping someone get over an addiction is like any other serious medical procedure: it’s best left to the professionals.”

After attending a Drug-Free Solutions@Work seminar, Joann Gomes, HR manager for Max Restaurant Group, says she now understands how her company needs to change the nature of the conversations between managers and employees about drug and alcohol use.

“We are going to try to refrain from having discussions with people about usage,” she says. “We’ll possibly look into more EAP services so we’re not in a situation where we’re doing any counseling at all.”

For more information about Drug-Free Solutions@Work seminars, contact Mark Soycher at 860.244.1138 or

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