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Managing someone who misuses drugs or alcohol is one of the trickiest situations you can find yourself in as a team leader, not least because addiction makes people very secretive. Here, we’ll look at how to spot somebody who might be struggling with drug or alcohol issues, how to approach the topic with them, and how to support their recovery at work – all while safeguarding the rest of your team and showing a healthy amount of compassion. Phew.
What’s the difference between substance misuse and addiction?
Substance misuse means taking any illegal drugs or using legal drugs (including alcohol and prescription medications like painkillers or sleeping tablets) inappropriately. Someone might misuse substances to change their mood or their mental state, to relieve pain, or as a form of self-harm. Substance misuse can be a one-off, or if it happens over a longer period of time, it can lead to a physical or psychological dependency (addiction). Both have health risks associated.
A quick side note on language here: we’re using the term ‘misuse’ rather than ‘drug abuse’, ‘alcohol abuse’ or ‘substance abuse’ because the word ‘abuse,’ (much like ‘addict’) has a negative connotation that can blame or stigmatise anyone experiencing drug or alcohol problems.
Addiction means that you no longer have control over taking, using or doing something that interferes with your quality of life or causes harm to yourself and those around you. We’ll be focussing on addiction to drugs and alcohol for this article, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you can become addicted to all sorts of things, like technology, gambling, work, sex or shopping, all with devastating effects on your personal life and relationships.
People with an addiction to drugs or alcohol have a physical and/or psychological dependency, which means they suffer intense and debilitating withdrawal symptoms when they go without. Addiction is considered a disease or a disorder (‘substance use disorder’) by most medical associations, because it fundamentally changes the way your brain works and responds to reward, stress and self control.
These physical and psychological changes can last a long time after recovery, and underline why using drugs or alcohol might begin as a ‘choice’ but this choice dissolves completely when an active addiction takes over.
Without treatment, addiction can be deadly. In 2020, there were 7,423 deaths caused by alcohol in England and Wales. The belief that willpower alone is enough to recover from an addiction is misguided, and a massive source of stigma for anybody experiencing a substance use disorder.
The cost of substance misuse in the workplace
Aside from the painful reality of living with an addiction for employees, substance abuse has a real impact on businesses, too.
- 1 in 10 small business owners say they’ve had an employee show up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- 40% of all workplace accidents are related to substance misuse.
- Employers lose around £7.3 billion to lost productivity, absenteeism and accidents caused by alcohol every year.
Signs of drug or alcohol misuse at work
Understanding the signs of drug and alcohol problems means it’s easier to protect the safety and wellbeing of your team. These symptoms, even in combination, should be considered warning signs, but they’re not definitive; they could also be signs of stress, lack of sleep, or side effects from a new medication.
- Not showing up for work (look out for patterns, like the day after payday or Mondays and Fridays in particular)
- Turning up to meetings late
- A dip in productivity
- Emotional outbursts or irritability
- Aggression and strained working relationships
- More accidents or near-accidents at work
- Looking dishevelled or not using a camera for online meetings
- Smelling of alcohol and/or excessive use of breath mints
- Bloodshot eyes or tremors
- Poor decision making
- Taking bags or coats to the bathroom
- Weak excuses for missed deadlines or incomplete tasks
- Social withdrawal
- Sleepiness or napping at work
If you’re concerned about the behaviour of someone in your team, or another colleague has expressed concern, then you’ll need to have a firm but gentle conversation with them (more on that in a bit).
If there are any health and safety issues that mean substance misuse could have a serious immediate outcome – if the person drives a vehicle as part of their job, for example – then taking action is your first priority. Having a policy on drugs and alcohol in place is essential to acting quickly and decisively.
What a drugs and alcohol policy should cover
It may seem obvious that being under the influence at work is unacceptable, but until you’ve got your company policy written down, it can be hard to hold anybody to account.
Your aim with this document is to give managers the tools to support anyone who’s seeking help (or in recovery) for drugs or alcohol, without allowing destructive behaviour to affect the success of your company or the health of your people.
Your policy needs to do a few key things:
👉 Make your expectations explicit
- Make it clear that to protect the wellbeing of your team (and your clients/customers, if relevant), employees cannot be at work while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This may form the basis for disciplinary action.
- If your team regularly entertains clients for work, then it might be a good idea to set out any expectations around whether social events are included in working hours, and what your expectations around alcohol are here, too.
👉 Help people to recognise substance misuse at work
- Include guidance for colleagues on reporting concerning behaviour to a line manager.
- Ask employees to let their manager know if they are taking prescribed medication that affects their ability to work, or suspect that they’re experiencing a substance misuse problem themselves.
👉 Outline which actions managers should take to keep people safe in the immediate term
- This will depend on your industry and the person’s role in the team. It might mean sending someone home temporarily or moving someone away from their normal responsibilities.
- Confirm that any illegal activity happening in the workplace itself (like theft or selling or sharing drugs) needs to be reported to the police. And make sure the line of responsibility for doing this is crystal clear.
👉 Show compassion for ongoing addiction and recovery
- Reassure people that drug or alcohol dependency will be treated in the same way as any other medical or mental health issue.
- Outline any medical or mental health support that your company offers, as well as how to access it.
- You could also include some useful links to help employees signpost support to anyone they’re concerned about. We’ve outlined a few at the bottom of this article.
Make sure your employees have access to mental health specialists to help them through addiction, misuse, or anything else affecting their mental health.
How to talk to an employee about substance abuse and addiction
👉 Stick to the facts
When someone’s behaving destructively, a direct and non-judgemental approach is best. Try “I’ve noticed” or “It’s been reported to me” to raise the behaviours that have caused concern. Avoid any language that minimises or skirts around the issue. Tell them their behaviour at work is worrying you, and that if there’s a problem, you and the company are here to support them. Invite them to comment on the behaviours you’ve noticed.
👉 Don’t expect too much
It’s not up to you as a manager to diagnose someone with a substance use disorder. And it’s very likely that if someone is experiencing a dependency on drugs or alcohol, they will bend over backwards to deny it or explain their behaviour away. But approaching the subject with kindness can make a big difference. Even if your employee doesn’t open up to you immediately, they may remember this conversation months down the road and approach you when they are coming to terms with their own addiction.
If your employee doesn’t disclose a problem and their behaviour isn’t putting anybody at risk, then it’s harder to offer them the support they might need. If their work continues to be an issue, you may need to get your company’s normal procedures for underperformance rolling.
👉 Signpost any help available
Whether or not your employee recognises that they’re struggling with substance misuse, you can use this conversation to highlight the details of any mental health support (like Spill) or medical cover (like an Employee Assistance Programme) you offer in your business. If this feels too confrontational, you could recirculate these details to all of your employees as a more general reminder.
How to support someone with addiction and recovery at work
If an employee discloses a substance problem to you, then a simple “thanks for telling me” is a brilliant place to start. The calmer your reaction, the easier the employee will find it to open up. Now’s also a good time to reassure your employee that this will be handled in exactly the same way as any other medical issue.
A solid first step if they haven’t started their recovery yet is to get them to speak to their GP, who can advise on the best next steps for treatment. Consider giving someone time off work to get professional help – if this isn’t covered by your sick policy yet, it’s the perfect time to add it in.
Handling all of these conversations with empathy should be a priority, but remember that your role is to support your employee to feel happy and productive at work, not at home. It’s fine to ask them how they’re feeling and to add more regular catch ups to the diary, but keep your professional boundaries in place by focusing any questions on how you can help in the workplace, rather than asking about their recovery.
Your employee might need time off to attend meetings, treatment or therapy, so offering them a bit more flexibility around their working hours can be another practical way to show your support. There may be other adjustments you can make to someone’s environment or schedule, so be open to discussing fair ways the company can help.
Educating the rest of the team around substance misuse and addiction is a useful way to challenge any stigma that exists around the subject. Just be sure to time any discussions or training sensitively if someone at work is currently experiencing an issue with drugs or alcohol.
We’ve also written about breaking the stigma around mental health at work, which has some practical tips you might find helpful here. Being a manager can mean taking on a lot of extra emotional labour, so make sure to carve out some time to look after your own mental wellbeing at work, and share the load by talking to other managers about their experiences, too.
NHS: find local services
Collective Voice: a national alliance of drug and alcohol treatment charities
Download our free return-to-work manager checklist 👇
Give your employees access to Spill mental health specialists to help them through addiction, misuse, or anything else affecting their mental health.