How To Help an Employee Addicted to Drugs

Written by Melissa Carmona

& Medically Reviewed by Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

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Updated 06/06/2023

Employers have reason to be concerned about addiction in the workplace. Research in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine shows that employees with substance use disorders or addictions miss significantly more work, leave their jobs more often, and cost their employers more from healthcare services than employees without addictions. Offering help for employee drug addiction can reduce these negative consequences and keep workplaces safe and productive.

Special Considerations for Remote Workers

Employee drug addiction may become particularly problematic with the transition to remote work during the pandemic. Anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead people to cope through drug abuse. Data collected by The Recovery Village points to a 36% increase in past-month illicit drug use in 2020. Remote workers may also feel an added sense of isolation or loneliness. When combined with anxiety, these feelings could lead to relapse or increased drug use.

Remote workers may also have additional opportunities for substance abuse. Reporting to work may have previously motivated them to stay sober, but they have less motivation to stay abstinent at home. It is also easier to use drugs privately at home than at work, so people may return to substance abuse or increase their use while working remotely, which can interfere with their work performance.

It is important to communicate to employees working from home that workplace substance abuse policies still apply. They may argue that what they do privately at home is not their employer’s business. Still, the reality is that as long as they are on the payroll and under a contract to perform work, they must adhere to workplace policy. 

Keep in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not allow an employer to discriminate against an employee with a history of addiction. However, nothing in this law prevents an employer from implementing a drug-free workplace policy or taking action against employees using illegal drugs. This means that you can discipline employees who use drugs during paid time while working remotely.

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Identifying Signs of Addiction

If you are concerned about addiction in the workplace, identifying the signs of substance abuse among employees is a necessary skill. Understanding the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder or addiction can be helpful.

Here are some indicators that an employee may be struggling with addiction:

  • Frequent absences and tardiness: continuing to use drugs despite failing to fulfill duties at work. An employee addicted to drugs may be late for work or miss work in favor of substance abuse.
  • Disappearing throughout the workday: leaving work to use drugs. Sometimes, employee drug addiction can cause someone to experience withdrawal symptoms during the workday, so they may leave work to alleviate withdrawal and satisfy strong drug cravings.
  • Financial troubles, despite earning a good salary: An employee may earn enough money to cover household expenses, but if they cannot cut back on drug use, they may spend so much money on drugs that other bills fall through the cracks. This is especially true if a person has developed a tolerance and needs larger doses of drugs to achieve the same effects.
  • Physical signs of drug use, including slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, track marks on the arms, or white powder/residue on clothing or in workspaces. Different drugs may have distinct physical signs as well.
  • Workplace accidents: using drugs in dangerous situations, such as before operating heavy machinery or performing demanding tasks at work. This can lead to an increase in workplace accidents.

Approaching the Issue

When you suspect an employee is struggling with an addiction, you may be unsure how to proceed. It can be a sensitive issue, but there are ways to address it while simultaneously respecting the employee and protecting your organization. Consider the following tips:

  • Respect confidentiality. Discuss the employee’s situation privately and avoid disclosing information about the employee’s drug use to others in the workplace unless they have a legitimate need to know. For example, if you supervise an employee who is coming to work under the influence, you may have to report this information to human resources. Beyond this, it is important to keep information about an employee’s drug addiction confidential. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers keep medical information confidential, and a substance use disorder, as a clinical condition, falls under the category of medical information.
  • Remain empathetic. Addiction in the workplace is understandably upsetting to an employer, but you should avoid being angry, harsh or punitive when addressing the issue. Approach the issue from a place of concern over their health and well-being.
  • Keep an open mind. Take time to listen to the employee’s side of the story, rather than assuming you know exactly what’s going on. Perhaps the employee is dealing with another health issue, and addiction isn’t the problem. Whatever the situation is, be willing to listen.
  • Clarify the options. Every workplace has different policies about substance abuse, but you may choose to offer an employee a second chance if they have violated a workplace policy that would normally lead to termination. You may offer them an option to go to treatment instead of being terminated. In this case, a return-to-work agreement can protect you and clarify expectations for the employee, such as completing treatment and remaining drug-free. They must comply with this agreement to keep their job. It also sets consequences: if an employee fails to complete treatment or comes to work under the influence again, they may be terminated per their return-to-work agreement.

Ways to Help

When talking to an employee about drug addiction, these strategies can help you encourage them to seek treatment:

  • Remind them that addiction is a disease. An employee may be hesitant to admit they need help for addiction because they may fear being judged as having a character flaw or being immoral. Remind them that addiction is a legitimate medical condition that can improve with treatment. This may ease their concerns and make them more willing to seek help.
  • Be prepared for some resistance. It is normal for an employee to resist a confrontation about an addiction. Instead of arguing or being harsh, approach the employee with care and concern. Listen to their fears instead of fighting against resistance and defensiveness.
  • Come with facts. Resistance is normal, so denial may come into play. They may entirely deny using drugs, or they may minimize the concern. Be ready with facts to support your position that the employee needs help, such as, “You have shown up to work several hours late on five different occasions during the last month, and twice, you were slurring your speech and having difficulty staying awake through the day.”

Be a Resource

Another way to address addiction in the workplace is to offer resources to employees. You can begin by being a resource yourself. Keep open lines of communication with your employees so they will be willing to come to you for help. Keep a contact list of area treatment providers or nonprofits where you may send employees for treatment.

Providing an employee assistance program or EAP is another important step. Large employers may offer an EAP in-house, but many employers choose to contract with outside providers to offer services. EAPs can provide drug addiction prevention programs to your organization, and they can offer assessments, short-term counseling and referrals to other needed health and social services.

Related: How Addiction is Impacting Your Company

If you are looking for assistance with offering resources and drug addiction recovery support, The Recovery Village is here to help. We can provide you with guidance in developing an EAP or creating policies to address drugs at work. For employees seeking addiction treatment in Colorado, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is located just minutes from the Denver Airport. Contact us today to learn more about our services.


Goplerud, Eric, et al. “A Substance Use Cost Calculator for U[…]ication Misuse.”  Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, November 2017. Accessed March 14, 2021.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is drug addiction?”  July 2018. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Rogers, Andrew H., et al. “Psychological factors associated with[…]COVID-9 pandemic.” Psychiatry Research, November 2020. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Federal laws and regulations.” August 4, 2020. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Provide Support.” December 3, 2020. Accessed March 14, 2021.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About COVID-19 a[…]d Other EEO Laws.” December 16, 2020. Accessed March 14, 2021.


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