Drug Addiction in the Workplace

The stereotypical description of someone addicted to drugs might sound like this: He once had a good job, a loving family and a beautiful home. Now, he lives alone, on the streets, without a penny to his name. His addiction is his only company. While it might be true that some people addicted to drugs live lives much like this, there are many people who are able to hold down good jobs and maintain close ties with their families, all while dealing with addiction. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly three-quarters of adults who use illicit drugs are employed. Many of those people may be harboring serious addictions to the drugs they abuse.

Drug addiction doesn’t just impact the drug user. The problems don’t even stop with the family members and friends of the person who uses drugs. Everyone who works with someone who uses drugs can be impacted by that addiction, in ways both large and small. That’s why understanding drug addiction, and knowing how to help someone who is addicted, is so important. Read on to find out more.


Many organizations declare that any use of an illicit substance, such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, is considered drug abuse. Even using prescription medications can be considered drug abuse, if the person is using the drugs for recreational purposes, instead of using them for their intended purposes. While people who abuse drugs like this can also cause problems in the workplace, this article focuses on drug addiction, and addiction is quite different from abuse.

Drugs of abuse can cause persistent and permanent changes in the brain that can make it harder for users to:

  • Plan for the future
  • Control urges
  • Make good decisions
  • Learn new information

All of these changes serve to lock the abuse in place, making it harder for the person to simply choose to stop abusing substances. The use is no longer under the person’s control. It’s become compulsive, as though the addiction controls the person rather than the person controlling the addiction. While people who are addicted to drugs might never intentionally harm their coworkers or make decisions that would cause other people pain or distress, the addiction may cause the person to make terrible decisions that can, in turn, have a ripple effect on everyone else the addict interacts with, including people the addict works with.

The Consequences

People who are addicted to drugs can face serious consequences that could impact their future job prospects. For example, according to the United States Department of Labor, 32.1 percent of fulltime workers ages 18 to 49 who use drugs report having three or more employers in the previous year. Among those who do not use drugs, that number drops to 17.9 percent. Changing jobs this frequently can look terrible on a resume, and it can make it harder for these workers to find steady employment, especially when these workers are competing in a tough and tight job market. Rapid job shifting can also cause financial distress for companies, as they are constantly spending money looking for workers, and then spending money training those new workers.

Similarly, the United States Department of Labor reports that of workers ages 18 to 49 who admitted to drug use, 12.1 percent reported an unexcused absence from work. That number among those who do not take drugs drops to 6.1 percent. Taking drugs can make people feel too ill to come to work the next day, and trying to stop using drugs can also lead to withdrawal symptoms that could be so strong that the person feels unable to work. Some people who use drugs go on binges that stretch from the weekend into the week, and they forget to call in before they miss work. Frequent, unexcused absences from work can lead to early termination, and it might be a black mark on a worker’s resume that could lead to future employment difficulties.

While it’s easy to see how an addiction can impact the addict and the company’s bottom line, the consequences of addiction can also strike those people who work with the addict. These workers might be asked to pick up the slack when the addicted worker is out, taking on extra assignments and working longer hours. Over time, these mild shifts in work can lead to long-term, simmering resentments that can cause increased stress in the workplace, or even outright hostility and fighting. When these workers do arrive on shift, they may still be under the influence or recovering from an episode of indulgence, and they can put the safety of their coworkers at risk. According to the American Council for Drug Education (ACDE), substance abusers are 3.6 times more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents, and they are five times more likely to injure themselves or another worker in the process. These impaired workers are responsible for 40 percent of all industrial fatalities, the ACDE says. Using heavy machinery with a partner who is impaired can have serious consequences, as these statistics clearly indicate.

Even workers who don’t spend time in industrial settings can be impacted by on-the-job addiction. For example, according to a study published in the Journal of Addicted Diseases, nurses with easy access to prescription medications were most likely to have misused those drugs. These nurses know what the drugs do, and they have access to those drugs. An impaired nurse could make a fatal dosing mistake with a patient, or even forget to carry out orders from a doctor. These mistakes could cause problems for coworkers, who are asked to repair the damage done, and the mistakes could also be catastrophic for patients, unable to understand why such errors were made in the first place.

Signs of Workplace Addiction

Knowing what an addiction at work can do is only half of the battle. It also pays to know the signs of an addiction in coworkers. In addition to frequent absenteeism, common signs include:

  • Inconsistent performance
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory
  • Errors in judgment
  • Requests for leave around paydays
  • Lack of grooming or deteriorating appearance
  • Excessive breaks during the workday

People in the throes of addiction also may develop personality changes that can manifest in the workplace. They may swing from feeling happy and elated one moment to furious and angry in the next. They may even physically threaten other coworkers or try to extort money from them. Some people also become impulsive and grandiose with clients, breaking company rules to hand out favors or becoming threatening or abusive during difficult negotiations with clients.

The Law

Many of the signs listed above can be attributed to other causes. Some people may develop mental illnesses that cause their behaviors to shift and sway. And some conditions that cause chronic pain can lie at the root of absences or grouchy behavior. An employee that accuses another of being addicted, or even terminates that employee on suspicion, might face a lawsuit if the symptoms were caused by something else altogether.

The laws regarding addiction in the workplace can be tricky and hard to interpret. People who work in human resources departments are well versed in the law and they are best able to handle addiction issues in the workplace. Rather than accosting a coworker over the issue, it’s best for workers to bring the issue to the attention of management. During such a discussion, it’s best to describe concrete behaviors or instances when abuse seems to have played a role. These specific examples can help leaders plan how to approach the person, and how the issue might best be handled.

Some companies develop strict rules about drug and alcohol abuse on the job, and they require their employees to undergo mandatory testing for drug abuse. In these companies, people who exhibit symptoms known to be associated with drug abuse can be simply required to go through testing. Some companies pair this testing with stringent workplace counseling programs, requiring people to complete these treatment programs when they fail drug screenings. Other companies do not offer mandatory screening, or they don’t pair screening with counseling.

Moving Forward

Whether an employee’s addiction is caught during a mandatory drug screening, or whether that addiction issue comes to light when the employee is asked about the addiction and admits to it, recovery is possible. Once the addiction is out in the open, it can be dealt with. Every day, people enter programs for addiction and they emerge from those programs with the tools they’ll need in order to keep them from using and abusing drugs in the future.

At The Canyon, we offer a healing environment for people who have addictions to drugs, as well as underlying mental health issues. Some of our clients have been referred by their employers, while others have found us on their own and determined that we provided just the right environment to help them overcome their addiction issues. Please contact us to find out more about our programs, and how we can help reduce the risks of addiction-related problems in the workplace.