Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly difficult to discuss with even the closest of friends and family members, especially for the first time. When drug and alcohol use transcends personal lives and seeps into professional ones, the situation becomes even more complicated. Addressing colleagues’ suspected substance use in the workplace is challenging and a bit daunting due to the fear of offending the suspected substance user. The reality is that while most of us try to build and maintain solid work-life boundaries, we spend the majority of our days with our colleagues and are bound to develop relationships with them – and this is a good thing! However, this also means that it can be really hard on us as employers and colleagues when those around us are struggling.
Even if a colleague is only using substances outside of work, it is nearly impossible to prevent its side effects from penetrating the workplace for long. Do you suspect that one of your employees or colleagues are using or abusing substances? Here are some signs to look out for:
Sudden behaviour or personality changes
Has their personality suddenly changed without another reasonable explanation, such as a divorce, a death in the family, or a new baby? Remember that these changes don’t always have to be negative – drugs can cause dramatic periods of alternating elation and depression. Sudden, dramatic and unexplained behaviour changes can be a cause for concern, particularly if they are odd or erratic.
Changes in work productivity
Has the person’s productivity started to noticeably slide? Or has their quantity-of-work increased, but along with it higher amounts of careless mistakes? Colleagues who are abusing drugs will often display inconsistent work performance riddled with differing periods of high and low productivity. Another common observation is taking different amounts of time to complete tasks they used to do faster or slower (again, without reasonable explanation such as recent extended training on the task).
Changes in social interactions
Are they suddenly not eating lunch with their normal friends at work? Survey your knowledge of their support system. Do they have a family or friends outside of work that can help them? Try to understand their context and level of available support as much as you can.
Increased sick days or no-shows
When a colleague starts to take more and more sick days, particularly without reasonable or logical explanations, this could be a cause for concern. These days could be due to hangover or withdrawal symptoms, drug use itself, or not having adequate transportation to get to work. Drugs can also affect motivation and logic – and they might find themselves struggling to get out of bed in the morning when they normally wouldn’t. Substance use and abuse often serves as an unhealthy coping mechanism for other underlying mental health problems, both of which are statistically associated with increased sick days. This is even more reason to encourage someone you see struggling to get help.
Be aware of any unexplained absences that just don’t sit right. They may seem random and sudden or without notification. Colleagues may not explain their absences, or provide wishy-washy answers.
Longer or more frequent trips to the bathroom
While colleagues could be using drugs in the bathroom, it is also common to have to use the washroom facilities more frequently due to the adverse side effects of substance use. Many frequently-abused drugs have unpleasant physical side effects that could be sending their users to the bathroom for longer or more frequent periods of time.
Decrease in accountability
Does the employee of concern often refuse to be accountable for their tasks or mistakes at work? If they tend to redirect the blame onto others more than seems reasonable, or such that a pattern starts to form, there may be a problem.
Decline in personal hygiene
This can be a major cause of concern especially if it is a departure from the person’s normal hygiene and self-care. This can be indicative of a chaotic home and personal life where there is little sense of routine.
Asking to borrow money from colleagues or friends
This is a major red flag as frequent drug use can be very expensive, even for those in higher income brackets.
The main thing to look out for here are sudden and significant changes in the person of concern’s life. Whether it’s their behaviours, productivity levels, social circles, health, or hygiene, if something just feels “off,” listen to your gut, but make no assumptions. All you can do in these circumstances is to encourage the individual to seek help and ensure that they know they are supported. It’s important to remember that people need to be ready and willing to put in the work required. We cannot control others by forcing them to seek help, which can unfortunately sometimes feel miserable to stand by and watch. Our responsibility as an employer is, however, to ensure that they know that there are solutions available to them and people who want to help. You can let them know that you care, and want to help them get the care that they need. If you’re concerned about a colleague, but don’t know what to do next, check out our other article on how to encourage your friends or colleagues to seek therapy.