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HR guide to dealing with workplace substance abuse

Substance abuse in the workplace is on the rise. Approximately 70% of the people who are into substance use are full-time employees.

Every year, nearly 3 million employees (about 3% of the workforce) come to work under the influence of substances. Not only does substance abuse affect the health and performance of employees, but it also causes considerable losses to companies – which are not just financial.


Read more: More support needed for employees with drug and alcohol misuse

Signs to look out for

The HR department must avoid accusing an employee solely based on these signs, as many of these could also be due to other underlying causes. However, the presence of several of these signs together must alert the HR department of a potential substance abuse problem.

  • Effect on work: Substance abuse will lead to a noticeable change in work performance. The efficiency of the employee will drop, and the quality and quantity of output will decrease. The employee might miss deadlines, take frequent and long breaks, sleep during working hours and show little interest and motivation.

  • Physical appearance: The employee might lose or gain weight suddenly. An employee involved in substance abuse is likely to appear unkempt. There may be personal hygiene issues.

  • Speech changes: Substance influence can lead to slurred and incoherent speech. Employees under the influence of substances may also have trouble focusing on a conversation and remembering what they were talking about. Excessive talking or unexplainable long pauses during talking are also possible under the influence of substances.

  • Changes in personality: Sudden unexplained and unpredictable changes in the personality of a person could be an indication of a substance abuse issue. Substance abuse can lead to paranoia, mood swings, hostility and other personality changes.

Supporting employees

If HR is successful at dealing constructively with substance abuse issues of employees, it will serve as a demonstration of the corporate social responsibility of the company. Here’s what can be done:

  • Substance abuse issues often have deeper underlying causes. Confidentially speak to the employee, maintaining a positive yet firm tone and avoid assumptions and judgments.The choice of treatment lies with the employee.

    The HR department can refer the employee to centres like Rehab Guide. Such centres help direct the affected people to suitable programmes and clinics according to the severity and specific type of problem. For instance, they could direct an employee struggling with an alcohol issue to the best alcohol rehab in London.

  • The course of action regarding the work of the employee will depend on how severely the substance abuse has affected the daily functioning of the employee. Employees in safety-critical work might have to be moved to other types of work at least temporarily. If the employee needs to be admitted to a residential rehab programme, then a reasonable period of leave can be given to the employee.

  • Regular follow-up with an employee who has successfully undergone rehabilitation and recovery is essential. Support and well-meaning efforts might prove helpful in preventing a relapse.

  • The HR department can create and promote a holistic wellness programme. HR should encourage employees to make use of EAPs (employee assistance programmes). Fitness and health must be promoted as important components of the company culture.

Substance abuse is a highly sensitive issue and HR must try to assist the employee overcome the issue. It is important to deal with substance abuse like a medical condition.

Instead of using fear-based tactics, HR should provide the necessary support to successfully retain employees and help them reach their full potential.

Isabella Williams is an experienced HR professional passionate about employee wellness and mental health in the workplace