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How to Spot a Co-Worker or Employee with a Substance Abuse Problem

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Last updated: 05/1/2019
Author: Medical Review

Reading Time: 4 minutes

If you suspect a co-worker or employee of abusing drugs and alcohol, you may feel tempted to confront them and offer solutions. But, misplaced accusations can prove crushing to misdiagnosed individuals, not to mention they cross professional boundaries.

In order to maintain professionalism and address the problem, it is important that your focus be on job performance. Only those things which can be documented and addressed are relevant to a work discussion.

And although any organization big or small can face the difficulty of employee substance abuse, there are industries that have a higher than average number of difficulties. These include food service, construction, mining and drilling, excavation, nursing, and installation, maintenance and repair.

Overall Problem Areas

The workplace can be impacted by drug and alcohol dependence in a number of ways. The largest possible impacts are:

  • The occurrence of deaths/fatal accidents
  • Increased injuries/accident rates
  • Increased absenteeism and sick leave
  • Decreased production
  • Decreased morale

As an employer or co-worker, you understand how important it is for every member of the team to arrive promptly with a good attitude and ready to work. Substance abuse makes this impossible. It may also cause:

Employee with a Substance Abuse Problem

If an employee is often late for work or even falls asleep on the job, they may have a substance abuse problem.

  • Increased tardiness
  • Excessive breaks and lunches
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Decreased performance due to the after-effects of substance
  • Increasingly poor decision making
  • Decreased efficiency
  • Increased likelihood of theft
  • Increased likelihood of conflicts with co-workers/supervisors
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work
  • Illegal activities at work, including selling illicit drugs to other employees
  • Increased turnover, resulting in training of new employees
  • Increased disciplinary procedures

When work is compromised by drug and alcohol use, additional time is needed to deal with the behaviors that caused the compromise. Thus, it becomes a continuing cycle that robs workplaces of resources and professionalism.

Signs of Impairment

As you read through the following signs, you may feel that they are often general or could indicate a problem other than drug or alcohol abuse and you would be correct. Your job as a co-worker or employer is not to diagnose or treat a substance abuse disorder. Instead, you should focus on the employee’s performance and directly address it when making criticisms.

Virginia Commonwealth University breaks down the behavior into the following stages:

Stage one: casual or “experimental” use


  • Arrives late in morning or after lunch
  • Leaves job early
  • Takes unexplained absences from the workplace during the day

General behavior:

  • Fellow workers complain about behavior or performance
  • Overreacts to real or imagined criticism
  • Complains of not feeling well

Job performance:

  • Misses deadlines
  • Makes mistakes through inattention or poor judgment.
  • Displays decreased efficiency

Stage two: more frequent drug/alcohol use


Takes frequent days off for vague ailments or improbably reasons

General behavior:

  • Statements become unclear or undependable
  • Avoids colleagues or co-workers
  • Borrows money from colleagues or co-workers
  • Exaggerates work accomplishments
  • Is hospitalized more than average
  • Incurs repeated minor injuries on and off the job
  • Displays unreasonable resentment

Job performance:

  • Exhibits general deterioration in work performance
  • Works at spasmodic pace
  • Shows lack of concentration

Stage three: preoccupied with “getting high”


  • Takes frequent time off, sometimes for days
  • Fails to return from lunch

General behavior:

  • Exhibits grandiose, aggressive, or belligerent behavior
  • Domestic problems interfere with work
  • Displays an apparent loss of ethical values
  • Encounters financial problems or garnishment of salary
  • Hospitalization increases
  • Refuses to discuss problems
  • Experiences legal problems

Job performance:

  • Performs far below expected level

Stage four: compulsive use


Has prolonged, unpredictable absences

General behavior:

  • Drinks on the job
  • Becomes totally undependable
  • Experiences repeated hospitalizations
  • Physical deterioration is visible
  • Financial problems worsen
  • Develops serious family problems and/or divorces

Job performance:

  • Uneven and generally incompetent


There is no simple solution to workplace substance abuse disorders, but offering support and treatment allows the workplace to dramatically assist in reducing the effect of alcoholism and addiction on employees and employers.

The establishment of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is believed to be the most effective way to address alcohol and drug problems in the workplace. Additionally, employers can implement a drug-free workplace and establish written substance abuse policies; offer comprehensive health coverage for substance use disorders and their treatment; decrease stigma in the workplace; and educate employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse disorders via company wellness programs.

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