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Recognizing Substance Abuse on the Job

Substance abuse remains one of the most serious issues facing U.S. businesses. Contrary to popular belief, most Americans who struggle with substance abuse hold down a job. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), more than 70 percent of those 18 and older who binge drink and/or use illicit drugs in America are employed. Shatter Proof, a national nonprofit organization focused on ending addiction, estimates that the yearly economic impact of substance abuse is over $442 billion dollars. Workplaces bear a significant portion of those costs due to absenteeism, increased healthcare expenses and lost productivity.

With such a dangerous and widespread problem, it’s important to recognize substance abuse on the job before it leads to an accident.

Warning Signs

Here are some early warning signs that can alert your supervisors to the possibility of substance abuse on the job:

  1. An otherwise inexplicable fall-off of work efficiency in terms of volume, accuracy, or promptness is often an early warning sign of substance abuse problems.
  2. So is frequent tardiness—often explained with increasingly elaborate, but hard to check, excuses.
  3. Excessive use of sick days is also a common warning sign of substance abuse. These absences often occur on a Friday or a Monday.
  4. Some employees with drug or alcohol problems may come to you and ask to use vacation time—right away.
  5. Another indication that you might be dealing with an employee substance abuse problem is an increase of involvement in accidents and near misses and/or an increase in the employee’s error rate.
  6. Yet another hint of the problem may be heavy use of breath sweeteners. Alcoholics, particularly those who drink during the working day, are heavy users of various sorts of breath mints to kill the smell of alcohol.
  7. Other early warning signs of substance abuse problems may involve physical and mental characteristics or changes, such as mood swings, a decline in grooming, staggering, dozing off on the job, etc.

Supervisors should be aware that one or two of these signs alone does not necessarily indicate an alcohol or drug problem, but a combination of several signs indicates it is time to speak with the employee about the possibility of a substance abuse problem.