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By: Dani Sorenson  |  Blunovus


The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 68.9% of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users (ages 18 or older) are employed at least part time, and according to the Office of Personnel Management, workplace costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year.

An addiction-free workplace is healthy, safe and productive, and having employees that struggle with drug and alcohol addiction can take a toll on an entire workplace. Substance misuse impacts not only the employee exhibiting addictive behaviors, but also co-workers and employers. As a manager, you have an opportunity to help spot addictive behaviors among employees and get them the help they need.

Recognizing signs of addiction in employees can be intimidating, challenging and stressful. It can also be rewarding and life-saving. Oftentimes, managers are the first ones to notice or be notified of problems presented through work disruptions. As a result, managers have a large responsibility when it comes to employee-wellbeing, and it is important for managers to know what to do and how to respond consistently to issues involving addiction.

When addiction signs present themselves among your employees, there are specific actions you can take in order to be supportive and mitigate workplace issues. Carrying out these actions fairly and strictly will result in the most success.

Preventing substance misuse in the workplace

Preventing addiction issues in the workplace is critical for long-term benefit. To realize these long-term benefits, make workplace drug-free policies clear and a requirement for employees to learn about. Managers need to be thoroughly trained on these policies and programs in order to enforce them effectively. Creating a workplace culture that is supportive can help prevent substance misuse.

The Department of Health and Social Services states that, “Communicating trust and openness around the subject of substance use disorders can help reassure employees that their employer has their best interest in mind and can help them access necessary resources.” When employees feel comfortable and welcomed in the workplace, they are more likely to abide by the policies or seek help.

Signs of addiction in the workplace

Familiarize yourself with the addiction warning signs that might present themselves in the workplace. Someone struggling with addiction might exhibit one or more of these warning signs, but it is not a comprehensive list:

  • Decline in attendance with elaborate excuses
  • Decline in quality and output of work
  • Frequently asking for time off around payday, holidays, Mondays or Fridays
  • Attitude changes or irritability
    • Placing blame on others, avoiding or changing the topic when meeting with them
    • Being argumentative or defensive
  • Excuses for missed deadlines or incomplete assignments
  • Strained relationships with co-workers
  • Avoidance of supervisors
  • Change in appearance (dirty clothes, poor personal hygiene, etc.)
  • Drug or alcohol use at work or other times that may be interfering with everyday life

What to do when you spot signs of addiction

Take note of warning signs that are indicative of addiction. When you suspect that an employee may be struggling with addiction, try to confirm these observed actions and behaviors with another manager or supervisor. This confirmation helps to lessen bias or assumptions about the employee.

In most cases requiring managerial intervention, drug or alcohol addiction will be interfering with job performance. If you have confirmed with another manager that an employee is showing repeated addictive behaviors that disrupt their work, an intervention with the employee is required.

If you are nervous about approaching the employee, speak with a counselor or mental health professional beforehand. Your company’s EAP is a great place to seek support in these situations. They can help you with what to say to the employee and how to approach the situation.

Confronting an employee exhibiting addiction warning signs

When addressing an employee who is potentially violating a substance use policy, managers should focus on the individual’s well-being and how addiction has impacted their work performance or behavior, rather than their action of misuse.

Your job as a manager is not to diagnose anything. A manager's role when discussing addiction with an employee is to implement the drug-free policy consistently while promoting positive behaviors. It is likely that you are meeting with them because of a noticeable decline in productivity or performance. When addressing the employee, the goal is not to accuse them of anything. Confront the employee without being accusatory or judgmental. Let the employee know what you have noticed and ask about why they may be struggling to keep up with their work. Focus on them as a person. It is important to make it known that you care about their well-being and that your conversation is confidential.

Many people who struggle with addiction are hesitant to seek out help due to fear that they will be viewed negatively or lose their job. Offer them support. Point them towards both internal and external resources. If you have a proactive Employee Assistance Program, Refer your employee to that EAP and let them know how it can help. Reassure them of the EAP’s confidentiality and the resources that they have access to. Your EAP will help and support the employee every step of the way. You can also encourage them to seek external treatment on their own. This could include health care professionals or substance misuse interventionists and treatment providers.

Let the employee know that you are open to further communication and that they can come to you. However, know that managers are not responsible for diagnosing or treating issues related to substance abuse or counseling. Expect to point them towards the appropriate resources.

Post Intervention

If employees have been given an opportunity to improve their work performance and comply with workplace policies but still fail to do so, the drug-free workplace policy may need to be enforced more directly. Inform the employee about laws relating to illegal drug use and the consequences of not adhering to workplace policies. Tie the situation back to the impact on the individual’s job performance, and remember, never approach the individual from a place of judgement or accusation.

When addressing addiction with employees, managers should be caring and compassionate, yet refrain from continuously catering to someone who is misusing substances. Managers should hold employees accountable to workplace policies and not enable addictive behaviors. By referring struggling employees to your company’s EAP and other resources, you are showing non-judgemental support in their diagnosis and treatment process.

Spotting the warning signs of addiction as a manager can be tough, but it is essential for maintaining a welcoming workplace for other employees. Additionally, preventing addiction-related workplace disruptions minimizes costs to the employer.

As you strive to create a healthy and drug-free culture remember to utilize your EAP for support when identifying signs of addiction, intervening, and continuing to help foster your employee’s success.


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Disclaimer: Blunovus content is not therapy and is not designed to diagnose or treat any condition you may be experiencing. Please contact a medical or mental health professional for treatment that is specific to your needs.