Addiction is getting more of a public spotlight, thanks in part to the opioid epidemic, which has resulted in more than 11.5 million people abusing or misusing prescription opioid medications and 2.1 million developing an opioid use disorder. Substance abuse and addictions extend far beyond opioids, but the crisis provides a motivating platform to begin discussing the problem in a public light.

So as an employer or manager, what can you do about an employee exhibiting signs of addiction?

Why Should You Care?

Aside from doing your part to ameliorate the substance abuse crisis we’re facing, why is this so important?

  • Employed addicts. The majority of people struggling with alcohol and addiction problems are still employed. As an experienced employer, you might falsely assume that all your employees are living clean, but that’s not always the case—you can’t assume there isn’t a problem just because you haven’t noticed one.
  • Retention and improvement. An employee struggling with addiction isn’t going to perform their best, and may not stick with you for much longer. Giving them the time and support they need can help you retain them, and improve their performance.
  • Setting the tone. Going out of your way to help an employee cope with addiction shows how invested you are in your employees. It sets a tone of acceptance and support that your other employees—even if they’ve never abused a substance—will appreciate.

What You Can Do

So what actual steps can you take as an employer?

  1. Recognize the signs of addiction. First, learn to recognize the signs of addiction so you can spot them in your employees. The obvious signs—such as an employee engaging in substance abuse and appearing unable to stop—are hard to miss. But look for more subtle signs as well, such as risk-taking behavior, secrecy, or isolation. Has this behavior escalated in the past? If so, it may be a sign of a problem.
  2. Have a non-judgmental, open conversation. Before taking any other steps, have a conversation with the employee in question, and make sure they feel welcomed in an open environment. Don’t accuse them of anything or ask specific questions about their substance use, but do ask how they’ve been doing and if anything is wrong. They may open up, or deny that there’s a problem.
  3. Provide onsite counseling or opportunities for open discussion. If you have an HR director, or a comparable role who can be a confidential resource, point the employee in their direction. Otherwise, make sure they know they can have an honest conversation with you about whatever they’re going through.
  4. Check your benefits plan. Many health insurance plans offer at least some coverage for addiction recovery treatment. Check your employee benefits plan and see what services are covered. Then, give the employee in question—or send a company-wide email to avoid pointing them out specifically—a brief rundown of the treatment options your policy covers.
  5. Offer contact information for external resources. Then, do some outside research. Track down a few therapists, support groups, or addiction recovery services that are available, and make the information available to the employee in question (preferably as discreetly and as sensitively as possible). Providing contact information makes it easier for the employee to take action, though it may take some gentle prodding or harsh realizations for them to take the next steps.
  6. Avoid enabling. Just like a friend or family member, you’ll want to avoid enabling behavior that supports the addiction. If the employee shows up to work drunk or high, discipline them for it. If they ask for an advance, deny it to them.
  7. Keep the work environment drug- and alcohol-free. Finally, take measures to make the workplace drug- and alcohol-free. If you don’t yet have a formally written policy on drug or alcohol use in the workplace, now’s the time to write one. If you already have one, now’s a good time to remind your staff that it’s there. You can also reduce alcohol consumption by avoiding serving it at company parties and other business functions to create a healthier environment.
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Your primary responsibility is to keep your business up and running, but part of that responsibility is taking care of your employees. Do your part to learn more about substance use disorders, and do whatever you can to connect your employees to the resources they need to get better. They’ll thank you for it.

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