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What to Do if You Think Your Co-worker Has a Substance Abuse Problem

Tags:  Substance abuse, Drug Abuse

According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (http://www.jsad.com/) nearly 15 percent of U.S. workers, approximately 19.2 million people, are on the job under the influence of alcohol at least occasionally. Amazingly this study found that managers are more likely to be impaired than their employees.

In addition, the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (http://www.hazelden.org/web/public/ade60206.page) indicated that over three-fourths (76.8 percent) of addicted adults in this country are employed.

While each situation is different and requires individualized handling, it is important to understand a few things about addiction before deciding what to do if you think your coworker has a substance abuse problem.


Some of the more common symptoms of substance abuse include mood swings, tardiness, excessive use of sick leave, taking long lunch breaks, irritability, hand tremors, a decrease in the quality of work, and declining appearance. You may be able to smell alcohol, marijuana, or other substances on the person's breath or clothing.

In addition, because employees may try and mask their drug or alcohol problem, what appears to be normal behavior may actually only occur when the coworker is high. The disruptive behavior typically occurs when they are withdrawing.


Experts agree that it is not a coworker's place to diagnose another employee, especially given that there are other problems such as depression that can cause similar symptoms. Instead, if you are concerned that a coworker has a substance abuse problem, you'd be wiser to discuss your concerns with your supervisor.


Because denial is such a very large part of this disease, direct confrontation usually doesn't work. Supervisor's are generally in a better position to note other surrounding issues such as the employee's declining performance so they can talk to the coworker directly and clear the way to discussing not only the workplace performance issue but any underlying causes.

Supervisors can then direct the employee to the human resources department for assistance. Many companies have policies and programs that can assist employees to understand their rights under the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) (http://www.eeoc.gov/types/ada.html) or to get assistance through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs, and/or taking a leave of absence.


Recovering employees need the support and compassion of those around them, and that includes their coworkers. Under the ADA or other laws employers may be legally required to provide assistance.

Experts suggest that employees be encouraged to come forward to seek assistance and rehabilitation, and employers focus on working with employees to encourage their recovery and return them to work.


Know that any discussion you have on behalf of yourself or another worker is confidential in nature and employers are required to keep it that way. It is really up to the recovering employee to decide how much they want to tell their coworkers.

Substance abuse not only affects the user, but it impacts those around him – friends, family, and coworkers. That's why it is important to understand how to deal with a coworker who you think may have an alcohol or drug problem.

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