No employer wants to face drug or alcohol problems in the workplace — unless you’re Michael Scott organizing an intervention for Meredith after her hair catches on fire from boozing, in an episode of “The Office.”

But the reality is that as many as 60 percent of those with chemical dependencies are employed in full-time jobs, according to a report by the National Business Group on Health. That raises the likelihood that at some point, one or more of your employees will struggle with addiction — which makes knowing how to help them an urgent but also delicate dilemma.

Untreated substance abuse is, after all, a costly burden on employers. Drug and alcohol problems cost the United States more than $600 billion annually, by the estimate of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Because the great majority of people with an addiction are in the workforce, employers can end up incurring a large proportion of that cost, in the form of higher healthcare costs, higher rates of absenteeism, reductions in productivity and job performance and workplace accidents.

Employees who receive substance abuse treatment, on the other hand, “may fare better at work, earn more, and require less assistance,” according to data collected in a 2007 study at Cappella University. They are also entitled to key job protections under the law when they receive drug or alcohol treatment.

What proper steps should employers take when confronted with an employee’s substance abuse problem? The following tips can help:

1. Know the signs to look for indicating a drug or alcohol addiction.

These may include frequent sick days or tardiness; frequent unplanned “emergencies”; missed deadlines; careless or incomplete work; a sloppy appearance; mood or behavioral changes such as excessive laughter or loud talking; avoidance of you and other colleagues, especially after lunch; and physical symptoms such as bloodshot eyes, tremors, and somnolence.

2. Remember that addiction qualifies as a “health condition” under the provisions of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

That means that if the employee is receiving company health insurance, they may be eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without fear of job loss or other reprisals. Be sure you are educated on the ins and outs of FMLA and other employee job protections under the law as they pertain to the employee in question and before you address the problem.

3. Be proactive in addressing the problem promptly, gently and directly behind closed doors.

The stigma of substance abuse remains an obstacle to employees seeking professional help. For example, one survey found that one out of five insured employees believed that if they sought coverage for drug or alcohol treatment, they would either be fired, lose a license or be passed over for a promotion, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

If an employee’s drug or alcohol use has begun to affect their job productivity or performance, the sooner you proactively address the problem (rather than wait for them to come to you seeking help) the better. The longer an addiction goes untreated, the more dangerous it can become, raising your legal liability as an employer. Other data from NIDA has revealed, for instance, that substance abusers are roughly four times more likely to be involved in workplace accidents. (These don’t just jeopardize the health and safety of the employee abusing drugs or alcohol; they put the well-being of other employees at risk.)

Moreover, like other chronic diseases, an addiction that goes untreated will eventually require more intensive and costly medical treatment than an addiction that is addressed in its earlier stages. Proactive and immediate intervention thus can spare employers from potentially higher health insurance costs further down the road.

Finally, broaching an employee’s problematic drug or alcohol-related behaviors as soon as possible sends the message that you recognize there’s a problem and want to help, but as a responsible employer you also maintain certain expectations regarding job etiquette and performance. One of the most basic of these is a commitment to a safe and drug-free work environment.

4. Use language that reduces the stigma of their condition.

Employees who are encouraged to view their problem with drugs or alcohol as a serious health condition (as opposed to a moral failing or character flaw) will be more likely to seek treatment. One reason may be that disease language, in addition to being a more accurate depiction of the problem, reduces the stigma that can so often hold people back from seeking help.

5. Refer the employee to some potential treatment resources, so they can get help.

If your HR person does not have a list of trusted treatment providers, now may be the time to begin compiling that list, either through your existing company health insurance policy or a relationship with an EAP.

6. Respect and prioritize the privacy and confidentiality of your employee.

Reassure your employee that you will do your best to honor their privacy and confidentiality when it comes to health-related information such as a decision on their part to seek treatment.


About the Author

Robert Parkinson, MSW, is Director of Client Care at Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Florida. Robert is also an anger management counselor with a strong spirituality component.