The impact of drugs on society and the workplace may surprise you: an estimated $520.5 billion in economic impact from alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drug abuse. Such a high cost has an effect on everyone, at least indirectly, but when you see addictive behavior in the workplace, it may have serious impact on you directly.

Here’s what you should know about the dangers of addictive behavior in the workplace, and what to do about it.

Impact of Addiction

Occupational injury is one of the greatest risks of drugs in modern society in the workplace.  Certain industries have built-in hazards, such as construction, mining, or trucking, and adding substance abuse to the mix can be deadly.  Yet many people may not realize the impact of addiction on other industries and the effects of drugs on society, as a result.  Addiction may lead to:

  • Loss of productivity through increased illness, distraction and absenteeism
  • Increased likelihood of injury or mistake, which can result in direct harm or loss of business or both
  • Changes in communication and being “out of it” that can impact valuable interaction with customers, clients, or fellow employees
  • Mood swings, behavioral changes, or unpredictability, as are common with substance abuse
  • Financial strain which can roll over into the workplace directly, such as through theft, or indirectly, such as through financial decisions based on addictive behavior
  • The stress and strain of feeling like a secret is being kept, for the addicted employee as well as for anyone else aware of the situation

Given the possibility of these and other effects, it is easy to see how addiction impacts everyone in a business.  Complicating the matter is the fact that some addiction may be to legal substances, such as alcohol or prescription drugs, so even with a “drug free workplace” policy in place, certain substances may escape detection or fall outside of regulation.  Yet, the impacts of those substances on the day-to-day operations of a business are still apparent.

Warning Signs

Any of the above addictive behaviors may indicate that an employee suffers from a substance use disorder.  In addition to those signals, you may get an idea from such behaviors as:

  • Changes in appearance without explanation
  • Changes in friends, social patterns or living arrangements (particularly if unexpected)
  • Sudden carelessness or inconsistency about behavior or job performance
  • Defensiveness, particularly about any observed changes or about the subject of addiction
  • Inconsistencies in stories or seeming to lie about absences, early leave times, family trouble or other seeming behavioral excuses

Under such circumstances it can seem like a good idea to tackle the subject with the person head-on.  While there may be circumstances under which that would be appropriate, in general it’s a good idea to take a more cautious approach.

Understand Everyone’s Rights

In states where employment is “at will,” employers do have a great deal of freedom about hiring and firing, but most states prohibit firing someone for what could be perceived as a medical reason.  Under the Family Medical Leave Act, employees have the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave.

So everyone has certain legal rights, and it may be a good idea to speak with a professional in your area to determine your rights.  It’s also always a good idea to start keeping documentation of any concerns or dangerous behavior, so that you have a record of offences to look for patterns or to address concerns.

Making an employee aware of their rights, in a non-accusatory way, is often a great way to pave the way toward recovery.

Working together, you can end the danger, restore workplace harmony, and maybe even save someone’s life.