Addiction affects every facet of life, including employment. Researchers estimate that about 70% of adults with a substance use disorder are employed (Frone et al., 2022). Thus, it is likely that all employers and managers will address addiction in the workplace at some point in their careers.
Despite its importance, being prepared to recognize and respond to addiction in the workplace can seem daunting for employers who have never had addiction training. If you are an employer or manage, here are five things that you should know if you wish respond effectively and best support employees impacted by addictions.
Anyone can be affected by addiction in the workplace
It is important for employers to know that addiction does not have a typical profile — it transcends demographics and social class. Anyone can develop a substance use disorder, which may be prompted or exacerbated by common risk factors such as genetics/family history, adverse childhood experiences, early exposure to drugs of abuse, and/or mental health concerns. As an employer, it’s important to not make assumptions about which employees may or may not struggle with addiction.
Addiction is not a moral failing, but a complex disorder with biological, psychological, and environmental components
Despite the medical community recognizing alcoholism as a disease in 1956 (Mann et al., 2020), the erroneous belief that addiction is merely the result of a character flaw, weak willpower, or antisocial personality persists in society. However, decades of research confirm that a biopsychosocial perspective of addiction, rather than a moral perspective, is most accurate. Employers must recognize that addiction is a complex disorder with a myriad of risk factors that affect its development and progression including neurobiology, genetics, life experiences, and the environment (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2019).
Employers should be concerned about addiction in the workplace
Some employers and managers may believe that employees’ use of alcohol and other drugs is not their concern, however, addiction can have numerous negative occupational outcomes such as impairment at work, injury, missed work days, missed appointment and deadlines, underperforming, errors, and interpersonal difficulties. Employees spend a considerable amount of time at work and thus employers and coworkers may be among the first to recognize the signs of addiction and intervene (learn more about the important of mental health literacy at work here).
Signs of addiction can include mood swings, chronic tardiness, difficulty concentrating, disheveled appearance, impaired coordination or slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, secretive behavior, or extreme agitation or irritability (Rupprecht, 2022). Employers should be aware of the signs of addiction and willing to broach the subject with their employees.
Employers should be aware of substance use norms at their workplace
Workplace celebrations, holiday parties, and out-of-office experiences may be great opportunities for social bonding among coworkers, yet they also may be times in which alcohol is readily available and used in excess (Frone et al., 2022). Employers should be cognizant of the prominence of alcohol at work events and norms related to alcohol consumption. Managers can be intentional to ensure there are a variety of beverage options, place limits on the number of alcoholic beverages served, and plan events that do not center on drinking.
Employers should discuss addiction with employees and provide information regarding treatment options
Rather than avoiding the issue and unintentionally contributing to the shame and stigmatization of addiction, employers should speak openly with their employees about the realities of addiction (e.g., its prevalence, etiology, progression), and describe what employees should do if they feel they have lost control over their alcohol or other drug use. Employers should provide employees with information about available Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and substance use disorder treatment services. If an employee recognizes they need help for substance use, they should know what to do and who to contact.
Being an employer comes with a lot of responsibility — both for the productivity and performance of the company, and the wellness of its employees. By being informed about addiction and prepared to respond effectively, your organization can make an important contribution towards building a psychologically healthy workplace.
About the author: Dr. Amanda L. Giordano, Ph.D., LPC, is an associate professor of counseling at the University of Georgia. She specializes in addiction counseling and has clinical, instructional, and scholarly experience related to both chemical and behavioral addictions.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine (2019). Definition of addiction. https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/quality-science/asam’s-2019-definition-of-addiction-(1).pdf?sfvrsn=b8b64fc2_2
- Frone, M. R., Chosewood, L. C., Osborne, J. C., & Howard, J. J. (2022). Workplace supported recovery from substance use disorders: Defining the construct, developing a model, and proposing an agenda for future research. Occupational Health Science. Advanced online publication.
- Mann, K., Hermann, D., & Heinz, A. (2000). One hundred years of alcoholism: The twentieth century. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 35, 10-15.
- Rupprecht, N. (2022). The impaired anesthesia provider. Strategies to prevent, recognize, and treat substance use disorder within the workplace. AANA Journal, 90, 64-70.