Drug or alcohol misuse in the workplace can cause serious problems. According to a 2017 Psychology Today article, up to 20 million people in the United States reported alcohol impairment at work at least one time during the prior year.

Reports of headaches or constant tiredness are common signs of drug or alcohol abuse at work. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation outlines other signs of drug or alcohol misuse at work, such as using during lunch and then disrupting colleagues as a result.

Common Signs of Drug Use in the Workplace

Drug use in the workplace can result in decreased productivity, injuries, accidents, and even fatalities.

Even prescription medication can cause problems for people who have not used these drugs before. Businesses can also be sued because of an employee’s drug-induced behavior.

We often believe that people who use drugs fall into certain stereotypes, but people of all persuasions and in all industries can have a drug or alcohol misuse problem.

A few signs of substance misuse are:

  • Causing workplace disturbances because of alcohol or drug use
  • Using prescription medication for the long term, which is known to cause memory and coordination issues
  • Bingeing on the weekends and showing up to work the next week while still hungover or coming down from a drug’s effects

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines other signs of troubling drug or alcohol use, such as:

  •  Decreased workplace productivity
  •  Alterations in appearance
  •  Changes in mood or attitude
  •  Lessened contact with colleagues or diminished presence in leadership roles
  •  Inability to focus
  •  Differences in behavior

Other common signs of drug use, according to the Mayo Clinic, are:

  • Spending money on alcohol or drugs even when finances are tight
  • Spending a lot of time recovering from the effects of the drug and obtaining the drug
  • Trying to quit drugs or alcohol but being unable to even when making the effort
  • Having economic issues and asking to borrow money without good reasons

Stressed man in business clothing grabbing his head while bent over on a chair

Signs of Drug Use at Work Related to Particular Drugs

Signs of Drug Use at Work Related to Particular Drugs

Some signs are particular to certain drugs.

Marijuana

Users may smell like cannabis and have red eyes. The Mayo Clinic says that some people become anxious or paranoid.

K2, spice, and bath salts

Both synthetic opioids and cathinone are unlawful in many states. Some people may experience changes in mood and hallucinations. Problems with thinking and a loss of coordination can also be side effects of these drugs.

Stimulants, such as meth and cocaine

If a person snorts these drugs, they may have constant congestion and mucus. Other side effects are tooth decay, mouth sores, or gum disease, otherwise known as meth mouth.

Sedatives, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates

Common signs of use of these drugs include slurred speech, eye movements the individual cannot control, and sleepiness. These drugs affect the central nervous system.

Psychedelics

Otherwise known as hallucinogens, these can cause people to start shaking, quickly change emotions, have difficulty speaking, or experience a lack of tolerance to noises.

Opioid painkillers

These can include heroin and prescription medications. Slurred speech, needle marks, and decreased awareness of surroundings are signs of abuse.

Inhaled substances

These can include paint thinners, glue, gasoline, and aerosol products. Continued use of these products could cause sudden death or brain damage. People who use these substances often smell like inhalants. They may also develop a rash around their mouths or noses. Signs of use could include a lack of coordination and slurred speech.

When Drug Use Is a Substance Use Disorder

Drug use in the workplace could be a sign that an employee is seeking a recreational high during work hours. However, using drugs at work could also be a sign of a serious substance use problem. For the most part, people who use recreational substances try to keep their work and recreation separate. However, as a substance use disorder starts to take over different parts of their life, drug use may start to spill over into work hours. 

A substance use disorder is identified through a set of symptoms that disrupt your life. It’s possible to use drugs and alcohol excessively before developing a significant substance use disorder. Weekend binge drinking and drug use are common among college-aged people and young adults, many of which never develop a moderate-to-severe substance use disorder. However, as substance use problems grow, it may be difficult to only use on the weekends. Users find that using drugs will take up more and more of your life. 

Addiction is ultimately identified by compulsive drug use despite serious consequences. Those consequences may involve drug health concerns and relationship problems, but they can also involve struggling work performance, tardiness, missed days, and poor communication at work. Identifying a substance use disorder may be an important step in helping someone get help and achieve sobriety. It also can help you understand the difference between drug misuse and addiction. Someone who abuses alcohol or drugs but doesn’t have a chemical dependence or addiction may be able to stop using if they’re confronted or when their drug use leads to problems. However, addiction can quickly get out of control, and it can be difficult to stop, even if you recognize that it’s become a problem. 

Substance use disorders are usually diagnosed with the help of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The fifth edition, called the DSM-5, separates substance use disorders into three categories: mild, moderate, and severe. The severity of a substance use disorder is based on the number of 11 symptoms you experience. Two or three indicate a mild disorder, four or five indicate a moderate disorder, and six or more indicate a severe disorder.  

The signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder according to the DSM-5 include:

  1. Taking a drug in high doses, more frequently, or longer than you are supposed to.
  2. Trying and being unable to stop using or cut back.
  3. Spending more and more time finding, using, and recovering from substance use.
  4. Cravings to use the drug that are difficult to resist.
  5. Struggling to manage responsibilities at work, school, or home because of alcohol or drug use.
  6. Using drugs despite consequences in your personal relationships.
  7. Neglecting responsibilities and hobbies for substance use.
  8. Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even when it puts you in danger.
  9. Developing physical or psychological problems because of substance abuse.
  10.  Building tolerance and needing more of the drug to achieve the same effects.
  11.  Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cut back or stop using that are relieved by using again. 

What To Do If You Suspect Drug Use at Work

If you are a colleague or supervisor of someone you suspect is misusing drugs or alcohol in the workplace, there may already be a policy in place to fall back on. As SAMHSA mentions, some states have laws that require places of employment to have a policy that addresses drug use.

Before confronting someone or reporting suspected drug use, check if your workplace has:

  • A written drug or alcohol misuse policy that explains why your organization or workplace has the policy, to begin with. It may be in place to comply with local or state law. The policy should list what your workplace expectations are, and it should have options for what employees can do if they have a hard time complying with the company’s rules.
  • An employee assistance program (EAP). Such programs usually discuss alcohol and other substances, but they may also be able to help with various personal issues that affect job performance.

If you are a supervisor and suspect a subordinate’s drug use, SAMHSA offers some advice.

Know your organization’s policy well

Be able to answer any questions about why the policy was implemented and reasons for the consequences it outlines for employees who are caught using drugs or alcohol.

Ensure due process

If you suspect a person is using drugs or alcohol, employees deserve a chance to refute these accusations. If there are any collective bargaining agreements, make sure you comply with these so that everyone’s rights are respected.

Once you have assessed both company policy and collective bargaining, make sure that you follow every procedure listed. If you are discussing drug or alcohol misuse with more than one employee, everyone must be treated the same way.

Collective bargaining agreements and company policy may also mention drug testing. Make sure that this process is fair for the employee. SAMHSA suggests checking up on a laboratory’s quality control so that positive results can be easily confirmed.

Act quickly

Do not wait until it is too late for an employee to try to make amends or fix their situation. Workplace supervisors must make observations early so that steps taken do not have to be drastic or extreme for both the employee and the company. This will assist the employee, and it can improve workplace safety.

Write it down

Document any instances where an employee may have been affected by drugs. Write down absences or any instances during which the employee underperforms. These examples can help you make your case when talking to your employee.

Use constructive criticism

You will need to plan a meeting and mention anything you have documented. You should also be prepared to discuss an EAP with your employee and guide the person through any processes. Mention a person’s contributions to the organization as well, and set deadlines for improvements and seeking help.

As a supervisor, keep the conversation within the parameters of how the employee can improve at their job. You should also agree on another meeting to check up on the employee’s progress.

Refer employees to a program, if appropriate

This should not come across as a disciplinary action but as a form of assistance.

Make a return-to-work plan

Have a plan to reincorporate an employee and support them after they return from addiction treatment

Organizations like SAMHSA provide guidelines for a drug-free workplace if you do not yet have guidelines in place. There are pros and cons to drug testing employees.

If you are an employee, always be familiar with your employer’s drug use policy and make sure to adhere to it before confronting someone else at work about possible drug use. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation mentions some ideas for employees who are not in managerial positions:

  • Ask for advice from a manager or supervisor without naming the colleague you are concerned about.
  • Discuss possible drug use with a colleague outside of work.
  • Talk about drug use from the point of view of showing support, and be ready to provide resources.
  • Know your company’s policies regarding drug use and your responsibility to report it if suspected.
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