How to Help a Co-Worker or Employee with a Substance Abuse Problem

Substance Abuse

by Dr. Elena Bagourdi

Have you ever suspected that a co-worker or employee in your company may be a functioning alcoholic or drug user? Perhaps you are concerned about a co-worker who’s showing an unusual decline in productivity or a pattern of erratic behavior as he or she progresses to more debilitating stages of addiction. It’s tough to see anyone going through addiction-related struggles, but a co-worker is often also a friend, and it’s natural to feel concerned and wonder what you can do to support him or her. 

You may be asking yourself: Am I a helpless bystander? Will it make matters worse if I speak up? In short, how can I help?

Workers at Highest Risk for Substance Abuse

Not all industries are equal in their potential for fostering heavy drinking and drug abuse. The annual average of fully employed adults suffering from substance abuse or dependence is 9.5%, but educational services (5.5%), public administration (7.2%) and healthcare workers (5.7%) fall well below that average. The picture is not so rosy in other industries, however. Workers in accommodations and food services demonstrated a much higher (16.9%) rate of substance abuse, with construction (14.3%), arts and entertainment (12.9%) and mining, utilities and administration workers (all above 11%) well above the average.

Another at-risk population is first responders (firefighters, law enforcement, EMTs, etc.). An estimated 30% of these workers have mental health conditions including PTSD and depression, due to the stressful and traumatic situations they face in their professional lives, and many turn to alcohol and drugs as a temporary way to cope with the vicarious trauma they experience at work, which could heighten the possibility of developing a substance abuse problem.

While it’s useful to know if your industry is a likely field for addiction problems, substance abuse can strike anyone. So, it’s important to know what steps to take if you suspect a co-worker is struggling in this way.

How to Know if Someone is Struggling with Substance Abuse

Alcoholism and drug dependence follow a progression that often starts with recreational or social use. However, as a person becomes more attached to the euphoric effect of the drug, cravings increase, and he or she may feel the need to use more often. This can lead to both physical addiction and mental dependence. 

Signs that a co-worker or employee is struggling with addiction can be as simple as seeing a friend at work events drinking heavily and frequently, using illegal drugs or using prescription drugs for non-prescribed purposes. It’s quite common, though, for a substance user to hide their drinking and/or drug use. Other signs that may indicate a problem include frequent unexplained absences from work (or tardiness), shaking hands, lack of self-care, financial difficulties, frequent requests to borrow money, erratic behavior and personality changes.

Creating a Supportive Work Environment 

Once you’ve identified that a colleague is struggling with substance abuse, you’ll need to determine the best way to encourage them to work towards recovery. It’s possible to take steps that make your work environment a supportive place for workers to come forward if they need help with substance abuse. 

Some things you can do to foster a supportive environment include:


If you’ve noticed specific behavior that is causing you to feel worried about a trusted colleague, take some time to gather observations. You can then take your concerns to the human resources department or your supervisor and lay out why you are concerned about your colleague and friend. You can (and should!) also enlist the help of both HR and your supervisor when implementing the tactics to create a supportive environment described above. That way, you’ll ensure the entire company works towards a culture that is free of shame and potential triggers. 


Though going through the proper reporting channels in your workplace is always recommended, you may still want to reach out to your colleague for a one-on-one conversation. Before you do so, be honest with yourself and examine your relationship with this person. Have you previously shared information about your personal lives? Do you generally get along? Do you feel there is a mutual sense of trust? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you may not be in a place to step in effectively. 


If you do decide to speak to them directly, be sure to keep your tone supportive and non-confrontational, emphasizing your desire to help above everything else. If your co-worker denies having a problem, it’s possible you made a mistake. On the other hand, your friend may just not be ready to address a true substance abuse problem. Leave the conversation on a note of trust, offering more opportunities for discussion if he or she should want that.


Opening Doors into Outpatient Rehab

Substance abuse struggles can lead to failures at work and fear of losing a job. But for an employee who is dedicated to keeping a job he or she loves, the path to recovery doesn’t have to be at odds with maintaining a career and fulfilling duties at work. 

While inpatient rehab stays of 90 days are common, they may make it impossible for the client to keep up with work obligations. However, there is encouraging news from studies that indicate outpatient addiction treatment can be just as effective as inpatient. The schedule of three 3-hour sessions per week in an intensive outpatient program — like those at Exis Recovery — provides a strong basis for beginning a new sober life while still allowing plenty of time for the workplace. 

As an employer, you can share information about the benefits of outpatient treatment and make reasonable accommodations to work schedules in order to allow your employees to attend the treatment they need. 

With the proper support from both their employer and their colleagues, a person struggling with addiction may find that the right treatment can mesh with his or her work goals and lead to positive change in both their personal and professional lives.




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