How to Tell if Your Coworker is Addicted to Drugs

Calendar icon Last Updated: 06/20/2024
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Your colleague down the hall just hasn’t been himself lately.  He’s called in sick three times in the last two weeks and he’s always coming in late. He didn’t finish his part of this week’s big presentation, so your whole group is running behind. The client isn’t happy, the boss isn’t happy – and you’re worried. Could your coworker be addicted? And if he is, what should you do?

Drug abuse in the workplace is on the rise, mirroring the surging rates of addiction in American society as a whole. In some areas of the country, alcohol, illicit street drugs, and prescription medication account for more emergency room visits than accidents and homicides combined – and overdoses play a role in as many, if not more, deaths.

But substance abuse isn’t confined to after hours – and new statistics on substance abuse make it clear that the face of substance abuse is not a homeless addict drifting through the streets, but someone who might be called a “high functioning” addict who holds a job or career. A recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, better known as SAMHSA, estimates that 70 percent of people who use illegal street drugs are employed. Overall, 10 to 12 percent of employees in a cross section of the US job market use alcohol or drugs while at work. And for many others, their use outside of work impacts their job performance or workplace safety in a negative way.

Though employee substance abuse nearly always takes a toll on office morale and the company’s reputation and bottom line, workplace addiction problems can also be deadly. A recent survey of workplace accidents found that 35 percent of people suffering injuries on the job could be considered “at-risk drinkers,” and in at least 11 percent of the country’s on-the-job fatalities, the victim had been drinking. Workplace addiction takes a severe economic and personal toll – yet relatively few companies offer their employees training or information on how to know if someone is addicted to drugs.

Who Uses Drugs At Work?

Substance abuse in the workplace takes many forms, and just about anyone, from CEOS to cleanup crew, can have an addiction that impacts the job in ways large or small. But as SAMHSA points out, drug abuse is more prevalent in some sectors than others. Construction, trucking, retail sales, food processing and manufacturing and assembly are areas hardest hit by substance abuse problems, particularly with alcohol and illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

But the nation’s much-publicized “opioid epidemic” has also reached the workplace, as more and more people become addicted to legally prescribed opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin. And while pain medications lead the list of widely abused prescription drugs, other kinds of medications can also be abused, such as benzodiazepines, a class of drugs often prescribed for anxiety and depression, stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, and sleep medications such as Ambien.

Although these medications are prescribed to treat legitimate medical conditions, they are often over-prescribed and can easily become addictive- In some areas, prescription drug abuse far outstrips addictions to alcohol and “traditional” street drugs both in overall addiction rates and in the workplace.

Workplace Drug Abuse Takes a Toll

From a disastrous workplace accident to a clerical error that costs the company a bundle, addiction in the workplace causes harm on a number of levels:

1. Safety

An addicted employee jeopardizes the safety of everyone at work. Though the dangers posed by an impaired employee are most obvious in jobs involving heavy machinery, precision equipment or responsible decision making, whenever someone is working when impaired by drugs or alcohol, they pose risks for themselves and those around them.

Those risks translate into risks for the company as well, not just in terms of branding and reputation, but also in costs paid for workplace injury claims and new employee training.

2. Workplace relations and morale

When a coworker is addicted, relationships with coworkers and management are affected. Coworkers can feel resentful about having to pick up the slack for s suddenly unreliable colleague. Addiction can affect mood and thinking, so that a previously pleasant coworker might become suspicious and hostile. Supervisors and bosses may have to spend time and resources on disciplinary actions or other kinds of interventions.

3. Company image and revenue

An addicted employee who becomes unreliable or behaves in a hostile or inappropriate way can affect the company’s image and reputation – or cost it money in the form of lost sales, costs of employee interventions or training, or even lawsuits.

Spotting the Signs of Addiction in a Coworker

“Addiction” is a broad term for many kinds of responses and behaviors in relation to a wide range of abused substances.  And it’s vital to remember, too, that the signs and symptoms of addiction can be attributable to many other causes, such as a health condition or life event. While it’s important to avoid jumping to conclusions about a coworker’s behavior, a number of behaviors and symptoms can be typical indications of a “substance abuse problem.”  And that problem can manifest in several ways:

1. Being “under the influence”

An addicted person may come to work while actively under the influence of a substance, which directly affects job performance, relationships with coworkers and even safety. Coordination, concentration, and other abilities may be compromised.

2. Being in withdrawal

Addiction means both physical and psychological dependence on a drug, so that when that substance is absent, distressing and potentially life-threatening symptoms can ensue. Withdrawal symptoms can mimic those of the “flu,” with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and chills. They can also appear similar to seasonal allergies, with a runny nose, watery eyes and swollen eyelids.  Addicts must keep using a drug or alcohol to stave off these symptoms and continue to function.

3. Being “hung-over”

In some cases, the addicted person is experiencing the aftermath of an episode of using drugs or drinking heavily, and that can also affect job performance and cause changes in demeanor and behavior.

5 Physical Signs of Addiction in Coworkers

Many people who use drugs work hard to conceal their addiction, especially at work. But the physical signs of addiction can be hard to hide. Here are five physical signs to tell if someone is addicted to drugs:

1. Changes in eye appearance

They may become bloodshot. Depending on the drug, pupils might be either pinpoint size or widely dilated. Eyes may be watery, heavy lidded or half closed.  A substance abuser may wear sunglasses in inappropriate places, such as inside a poorly lit building.

2. Dramatic weight changes

A person addicted to stimulants may lose weight rapidly, while a person taking anti-anxiety or pain medications might gain several pounds. And people with full-blown addictions may simply neglect eating; along with other kinds of poor self care.

3. Neglecting personal grooming and self-care

When all attention is focused on the addiction, it’s easy to forget about other aspects of life. People with addictions may neglect to shave, bathe, brush their teeth, or comb their hair. They may come to work in rumpled, wrinkled clothes or wear the same outfit several days in a row.

4. Unusual odors may occur

A person with an addiction may have an unusual smell.  Their breath may smell of alcohol or strong mints used to eliminate that smell. If the addiction involves “huffing” paint or other chemicals, those smells may linger in an addict’s clothing. People with addictions to stimulant drugs often perspire profusely, too, causing a strong smell of sweat. If addiction has affected a person’s self care and attention to grooming, that can also cause a distinctive odor that can distress coworkers.

5. Coordination may be compromised

A person with an addiction may appear suddenly clumsy or uncoordinated. Their hands may tremble, or they may walk unsteadily.

Sudden Changes in Behavior May Indicate Your Coworker Has an Addiction

A combination of sudden shifts in behavior, attitude and mood can often be attributed to substance abuse. Ask yourself, is your coworker:

1. Suddenly missing work more often?

Frequent absences and sudden bouts of mystery illnesses are a typical indicator of substance abuse. Some substance abusers might ask family members to call in sick for them rather than explain in person why they’re skipping work.

2. Seeking out money?

Addictions cost money, and an addicted coworker might ask people if they can spare some cash for an “emergency” of some kind.  An addicted person might also do some inappropriate snooping in coworkers’ desks or purses, or take money from work sources like a coffee fund.

3. Turning down invitations?

As an addiction progresses, it consumes more and more of a person’s time, and new, drug related friends can be more fun than non-users. An addicted person may decline invitations to lunch or after work activities they previously enjoyed.

4. Experiencing changes in their mood?

Drugs of all kinds affect both the mind and the body, and active substance abusers may show mood and personality changes ranging from irritability and paranoia to depression and sadness. They may get into conflicts with coworkers or believe that someone is out to sabotage them or take their job.

5. Appearing sleepy or exhausted?

People who are addicted to central nervous system depressants such as opioids may appear drowsy or slow. During breaks or at lunch, they may be dozing or seem dazed. They may have problems with concentrating or remembering information. Alcoholics, too, may seem sluggish, sleepy or fuzzy headed.

6. Always late for work or meetings?

Because addiction tops an addict’s list of priorities, they may be late to work, meetings or getting back from lunch because of using their drug.

How Can Workplaces Help Addicted Employees?

Because workplace addiction takes such a severe toll on morale, safety and revenue, companies both large and small are taking steps both to prevent addiction at work and help employees who have addictions.

Strict, written policies on drug abuse can protect companies and clarify expectations about employee behavior. Whether the penalty for coming to work under the influence is immediate dismissal or referral for counseling, making those expectations explicit can help to shape employee behavior.

Pre-employment drug testing, along with testing in specific circumstances such as after a workplace accident or in the event of “reasonable suspicion,” can also help to reduce the impact of drug abuse on the workplace as a whole and identify at-risk employees.

Employee Assistance Programs and other kinds of support can help an addicted employee start the journey toward recovery. EAP programs are in place in many companies, offering confidential referrals to counseling, rehabs and support groups for substance abuse and many other kinds of problems that might affect an employee’s performance on the job.

How Can You Help an Addicted Coworker?

You don’t want to see your coworker get in trouble or lose their job – but you don’t want the effects of their addiction to impact you and others in the company, especially if their substance abuse could put lives at risk. You need to intervene, but how?

Option 1 – Talk to Your Coworker

The first step may involve talking to your coworker. Some addiction professionals note that showing someone with an addiction that you care for them and their well-being can be the first step toward getting them the help they need.

If you feel safe to do so, you may want to speak to your coworker directly about the situation in a non-judgmental way. Let them know that you don’t want to see them lose a job or face disciplinary action – or harm someone. But that can be risky. Your addicted coworker may become defensive or angry, denying the problem and lashing out at you for bringing it up. Someone whose addiction causes them to feel paranoid and threatened might even try to harm you. Assess the situation thoroughly before proceeding.

Option 2 – Talk to Human Resources

A safer option is to take your concerns to a professional. If your company has a human resources department that offers EAP assistance or other kinds of help, you may want to talk with them about the situation.  Be sure to document concrete instances of a colleague’s red-flag behaviors. A human resources representative can then approach the coworker and discuss options in a professional, detached way.

Option 3 – Talk to Your Boss

Should you tell the boss? In some situations, you might have to. But it’s important, whatever size company you work for, to consider the most professional way to approach a coworker’s drug problem – and one that doesn’t compromise anyone’s safety.

Someone who is obviously impaired and operating dangerous machinery needs to be reported immediately, and so should any other situation where safety might be an issue. Many companies have protocols for reporting these kinds of concerns anonymously, if necessary.

Drug addiction in the workplace can affect everyone, not just the addicted individual.  Knowing how to tell if someone is addicted to drugs can save jobs, money – and lives.