Addiction in the workplace

In Canada, it is estimated that the cost in lost productivity resulting from addictive illness equates to over $40 billion a year. Substance abuse can affect every aspect of an individual’s life devastating family, friends and their community. It can also have a profound impact in the workplace, not just in financial terms but also in relationships, job performance, accidents in or out of work, poor time keeping and absence. This impacts the workload and stress for those who work with the addicted individual.

When a substance abuse problem becomes so pervasive it disturbs the workplace, colleagues, supervisors and employees must take action.

For colleagues, this means being open and honest by challenging addictive behaviour. Do not ignore, excuse or cover up for a colleague who abuses drugs or alcohol. Lying to cover up a missed assignment or accident, rationalizing problem behaviours, avoiding contact with the person or taking on extra work to make up for mistakes made will prevent recognition of the seriousness of addiction. Depending on the situation and your working relationship, you may want to take affirmative steps to help. Trying to talk to your colleague about your concerns in a straightforward, compassionate way may be valuable. It may be met with excuses, apologies, angry remarks, tearful pleas, and claims of innocence. Your job is to offer non-judgmental support and encourage them to seek treatment, not solve the problem yourself.

As an employee, the staff member is a valuable resource for the company. Since all businesses will confront an employee’s substance abuse at some point, every employer should have a plan in place for addressing addiction in the workplace, and getting the proper treatment for those who need it.

Research suggests that addiction treatment costs less than replacing an employee and is worth the investment in terms of increased morale, customer satisfaction and improved job performance. In a survey taken by the Hazelden Foundation, 67% of human resource professionals reported that substance abuse and addiction is one of the most serious issues they face in their company. Yet only 22% of these professionals said their companies openly and proactively deal with employee substance abuse and addiction issues.

The signs of addiction aren’t always as clear as a colleague stumbling to his desk smelling strongly of alcohol, slurring his speech, or talking openly about his excessive drinking. Many addicts have had years of experience hiding their substance abuse problems. It must be remembered that abuse and addiction of prescription medications is a hidden addiction, which is largely denied by society as a whole and is difficult to identify in the work place.

Here are a few indicators that can lead to building up an accurate picture of substance abuse.

  • Excessive absenteeism with failure to report a reason or giving improbable excuses for absence.
  • Missing deadlines or forgetting to turn in assignments, neglecting important responsibilities, deterioration in other areas of job performance or work quality.
  • Extended breaks or lunches, long periods of absence from the work station, consistent early departures from work.
  • Poor personal hygiene or grooming.
  • Erratic or unusual behaviours like extreme talkativeness, impatience, paranoia, sleepiness, or shaky hands.
  • Stealing from the company or colleagues, frequently borrowing money from colleagues.
  • Unusual weight loss or gain.
  • Attitude changes (irritability, mood swings, restlessness, anxiety.)
  • Increased disagreements with colleagues, over-reaction to real or imagined criticism, blaming others for shortcomings, deteriorating relationships or a withdrawal from normal social interactions.
  • Accidents on or off the job.