Drug abuse by an employee within the workplace, or perhaps even outside of it depending on the type and regularity of usage, can pose a significant risk of harm to both the individual and the organisation. It compromises the health and safety of both the employee in question as well their co-workers and can also impact the company on a financial and social level.

It’s an issue that many employers are likely to face – in fact, in the past year alone approximately 1 in every 11 workers in the US struggled with substance or alcohol use. However, the situation is inevitably a delicate one and must be addressed with caution by the employer to prevent causing undue stress or blame.

Signs of an employee’s drug usage

Being aware of the signs of any potential drug abuse can help the employer spot issues earlier and potentially resolve the situation before it’s no longer possible. However, navigating between what signs point to genuine drug abuse is tricky and there is no one sign that can guarantee your suspicions.

It’s also important that the manner in which an employee is impacted by drug abuse can take on many different forms. Hence, it’s essential for an employer to take the following signs not as concrete proof but rather as an indication that further investigation is needed.

Possible signs of employee drug abuse can include (but are not limited to):

1. A drop in productivity

If an employee’s otherwise consistent performance takes a hit then it can be a cause of concern – decreased work output and quality is a fairly common sign in employee drug abuse situations. However, on its own, it can also be a sign of many other circumstances, so while taking note of this sign is a good idea, it’s best not to make hasty conclusions either.

2. Increased absences

More days off and excessive tardiness from someone who was usually on time is another common sign to look out for.

3. Physical changes

Physical changes can be to their outward appearance or/and their motor and speech skills. Some examples include:

  • Severe lack of grooming
  • Pallid complexion
  • Unclean clothing and unpleasant odours (in particular, the smell of chemicals, alcohol etc.)
  • Slurred or incoherent speech
  • Unsteady on their feet
  • Bloodshot, watery or glassy eyes

4. Changes to their personality at work

Drug abuse can present a host of changes to mood and the way this manifests in each individual can vary but there are similarities that can be helpful. For example:

  • Increased irritability and mood swings
  • Aggression and hostility for no apparent reason
  • Appearing sleepy or hyperactive
  • Being disrespectful to their coworkers
  • Issues with teamwork

Consequences of drug usage by an employee

Drug abuse by an employee risks the health and safety of all employees in the workplace. It also poses risks for the company itself.

These can include:

  • Increased risk of workplace-related injuries and accidents and resulting costs
  • Time cost resulting from increased absences, tardiness and lowered productivity
  • Poor employee relationships and teamwork
  • Lower workplace morale
  • Decreased quality of work
  • An additional burden to other employees to take on more responsibilities to meet deadlines
  • Increased employee turnover rates
Drug Abuse

What steps you can take if you suspect an employee is using drugs?

1. Document suspicious signs and behaviour

Being able to point to a specific time, date, and situation when required is very important in making sure you are able to move from mere suspicion to actively addressing the problem. Having any noteworthy changes or events such as tardiness or decreased attention will also be necessary when talking to the employee or another relevant authority to demonstrate that you are not acting without reason.

2. Review your alcohol and drug policy

The company’s drug and alcohol policy will help guide the actions you take and the limitations you may face. One important factor will be the company policy on drug tests and the criteria that must be met before asking an employee to undertake one. Similarly, the policy must clearly define the consequences for various forms of drug use violations.

3. Approach the employee

When meeting with the employee, make sure that you are not confrontational or accusing in your approach. It’s best to have another person of authority present and an additional note taker to document the meeting. You should also allow the employee to have a support person present if they choose to do so, though this person should not speak on behalf of the employee.

After presenting your concerns and observations, allow the employee to discuss their perspectives. Make sure to be open about what would come next and what their options are.

4. Request a drug test

Based on your company policy and the content of the meeting, you can request the employee to submit an approved drug test. Any action after the drug test results are released, whether positive or negative, should be in accordance with what is laid out by the company policy. This also applies in the situation where the employee refuses to take a drug test.

5. Do your best to help the employee

If the employee admits to drug abuse or the test results are positive, an employer can do certain things to help them out. Create a plan for the employee, with their input, that includes interventional actions such as professional help and changes to work duties.

When doing this, make sure to remove the employee from any tasks that are safety-sensitive and could endanger them or other employees. Monitor the progress of the employee and if there seems to be no improvement, it may be time to seek any relevant disciplinary action as dictated by company policy.

Drug abuse within the workplace is an issue that can be challenging to address. For this reason, having a clear and comprehensive drug and alcohol abuse policy is crucial for navigating such situations for the best possible outcomes. As an employer, it’s important not to jump to conclusions and carry out a fair investigative process.

It’s also a good idea to cover drug and alcohol abuse as part of your training for employees so that they are aware not only of the consequences but how to seek help from both the company and externally should they need it.