October 7, 2021 Addiction

Your Employees Are Using Drugs: 5 Things to Know

If you have employees, more than likely, you have employees who are misusing or addicted to illicit drugs. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a U.S. Department of  Health and Human Services agency, reported that just over one in five Americans misuse illicit drugs as of 2019. This equates to 5.2 million people misusing anything from pain pills to sedatives to stimulants.

There’s no doubt that drug use harms the workplace. From safety issues, lost productivity, and extensive absences, drugs and addiction cause additional problems for human resources professionals—and the company.

For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “workers with a current substance use disorder miss an average of 14.8 days per year, while the subset with a pain medication use disorder miss an average of 29 days per year.”

For employers, the misuse of illicit drugs can also drive up benefits and workers’ compensation costs if not confronted. But, as an employer, how do you confirm an employee’s drug use? What signs do you look for? What are your legal obligations? How can you help your employees who are misusing illicit drugs?

In this article, we will delve into some of these topics, giving employers an overview of how to approach drugs and addiction in the workplace.

Establishing the Basics: Implementing a Drug Abuse Policy

In curbing employee drug use, the first step employers should take is to establish clear and robust drug-free workplace policies, protecting both themselves and their employees. And this is not just a best practice; it’s suggested by the U.S. Department of Labor, which “recommends that all employers have a written drug-free workplace policy that is shared with all employees and clearly outlines expectations regarding alcohol and drug use.”

If you need help drafting or updating your drug-free workplace policies, contact a qualified employment attorney to help you craft these.

Employees may exhibit behavioral characteristics when misusing drugs such as: Extensive absenteeism, unable to keep appointments, attend meetings, or meet deadlines, Low productivity, Major errors or oversights, Unable to get along with coworkers, Continued deterioration in physical appearance, increased isolation.

What to Look For: Signs of Addiction

Employers should also know and understand the signs of addiction. And not only should employers look for these signs, but they should also formally train managers to spot any warning signs potentially resulting from drugs and addiction.

For example, when misusing illicit drugs, employees may exhibit specific behavioral characteristics such as:

  • Extensive absenteeism
  • Unable to keep appointments, attend meetings, or meet deadlines
  • Low productivity
  • Major errors or oversights
  • Unable to get along with co-workers
  • Continued deterioration in physical appearance
  • Increased isolation

Although these characteristics may lead to issues other than misuse of drugs, such as a family or other health issues, it’s best to investigate these warning signs early, allowing you to support your employees while reducing negative impacts on the workplace.

What to Know: Drug Addiction and the Law

As you’d expect, how to handle drug addiction in the workplace is governed by several federal and state laws. The type of business you run impacts which laws govern.

For example, if you have union employees, the collective bargaining agreement may set forth certain obligations in dealing with workplace drug use. If the U.S. Department of Transportation governs you, then you’ll have an additional set of rules that apply to your organization for safety-sensitive positions. And, if you do more than $100,000 of business with the federal government or you obtain any federal grant, then you’ll need to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

For companies with 15 or more employees, you’ll need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as those employees with drug addiction are considered disabled. In these cases, employers may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to support these workers. Other federal and state laws may also come into play, such as the Family Medical Leave Act.

Because of the potential of overlapping federal and state laws, it’s best to consult with qualified legal counsel to understand your obligations and options fully.

Talking to Your Employees: What Can You Say?

Confronting your employees about illegal drug use suspicions is not an easy task, and one where employers must be very cautious.

Typically concerns about drug addiction may come from other employees, managers, or even customers or clients. However, if your organization does not have drug testing policies, it may be challenging to confirm the misuse. Also, some drugs don’t show up on workplace drug testing panels, where for other companies, the governing state law makes it difficult—if not impossible—to test.

According to SHRM, “absent drug testing, performance discussions may be one of the best vehicles for broaching suspected addiction. Addressing performance or conduct concerns directly can open the door for more candid discussions.”

As employees may deny any drug use or addiction when confronted, you’ll want to proceed with overseeing performance and conduct, documenting all interactions and concerns. Here, employers should again be wary of legal requirements, such as not discriminating against employees with substance abuse addiction.

Supporting Your Employees: How Can You Help?

Although dealing with workplace substance abuse addiction can often feel like a minefield, there are ways employers can support their employees. First, treating substance abuse disorders should fall under your group health plan. Second, educating your employees about these resources and the associated costs may open up additional support lines for employees who perhaps did not know these benefits existed.

Additionally, offering and promoting an employee assistance program (EAP) could provide support and intervention to employees struggling with addiction. Typically, these programs are provided at no cost to your employees as a stand-alone program or with your health plan.