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What Employers Can Do About Employee Substance Misuse

A substance use disorder (SUD) can lead to problems in several areas of a person’s life, including work. According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 70% of people with a SUD are employed.1 Nearly 11 million people in the U.S. workforce have a SUD, which represents around 9.5% of the workforce overall.2

Employee substance misuse can lead to negative outcomes for employees and employers alike, including increases in absenteeism, accidents, job loss, and more.1 For employers, learning about SUD can help you better assist employees who may be struggling. This page will help you learn more about:

  • Legal obligations for employers.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs).
  • Signs of employee substance misuse.
  • Helping employees struggling with substance misuse.

What Are the Legal Obligations for Employers?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that all employers should have a written drug-free workplace policy that clearly outlines the expectations regarding substance use.1

Many private employers can address employee substance abuse in several ways. However, some employees must adhere to specific requirements. For example, employers who obtain federal grants or do a significant amount of business with the federal government are required to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

Some laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), govern certain aspects of what employers can do if an employee engages in substance misuse or is in recovery for a substance use disorder (SUD).1 Under the ADA, an employee cannot be discriminated against for having a SUD. However, an employer can discipline or fire an employee if their substance use impacts their ability to perform the job.1 The use of illicit drugs is not considered a protected disability under ADA.1

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), is another federal law that offers protection to employees seeking treatment for a SUD.3 Employers with more than 50 employees are required to offer FMLA, which allows employees who have worked for the company for at least 1 year and who work at least 1,250 hours per year to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to seek SUD treatment.3 A person cannot be demoted, fired, or refused promotion due to taking FMLA for substance misuse.3

Keep in mind there are numerous laws and regulations regarding employee substance abuse. In addition to the ones discussed here, there may also be industry- and state-specific laws and regulations that impact you. It’s best to consult an attorney or work with a human resource (HR) professional to learn more.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are designed to help employees solve personal problems (e.g., mental health) that may be negatively affecting their performance at work.4

An EAP typically offers confidential, short-term counseling and assistance finding treatment for a range of issues.5 Some of the issues that EAPs can address include:5

  • Grief.
  • Stress.
  • Family problems.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Substance misuse.
  • Workplace issues.

Using an employee assistance program for substance abuse comes with both pros and cons. EAPs are confidential and free to use and may decrease absenteeism while increasing employee engagement. Unfortunately, some studies suggest that employees who misuse substances are less willing to use an EAP than employees who don’t misuse substances.6 Still, EAPs can provide a relatively barrier-free way for employees to receive a variety of services, including prevention, screening, short-term counseling, referrals for specialty treatment, and more.7

Signs of Employee Substance Misuse

A substance use disorder (SUD) can only come be diagnosed by a medical professional using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).8 However, there are several physical and behavioral signs and symptoms that may indicate someone is struggling with alcohol or drugs, such as:7, 8

  • Absenteeism.
  • Accidents on and off the job.
  • A decrease in work performance.
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating.
  • Erratic work performance, with ups and downs in productivity.
  • Failing to meet deadlines.
  • Increasing interpersonal conflict with co-workers.
  • Poor hygiene and personal appearance.
  • Being intoxicated.
  • Physical signs such as dilated pupils, fatigue or hyperactivity, slurred speech, or an unsteady gait.

Treatment Options

Addiction is a chronic disease that can hinder a person’s ability to stop using a substance. Fortunately, addiction is treatable. Treatment can help people stop using substances, stay substance-free, and return to healthy, productive functioning at home, work, and within the community.9

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for addiction. Effective treatment not only addresses a person’s substance use, but their needs as a whole as well. For many people, detox is an important first step in recovery. Detox can help people achieve a substance-free state as comfortably and safely as possible so they can transition to ongoing treatment.10 Following detox, a person may transition to ongoing care where they may receive behavioral therapy, medications, long-term follow-up care, and more.10

Treatment can take place in several settings, including inpatient or outpatient rehab. Inpatient rehab programs provide patients with intensive, structured care around the clock. Patients live at the facility for the duration of treatment, which can provide a safe environment where they can focus on recovery.9 Outpatient rehab programs differ in that patients live at home for the duration of treatment. These programs range in duration and intensity depending on a patient’s needs.9 Outpatient treatment programs may make it easier for an employee to remain at work. There are also executive rehab programs that may accommodate an employee’s work.

Getting an Employee Help for Addiction

Employers must be cautious when they address an employee they suspect is abusing substances, as there can be other reasons a person may exhibit some of the signs of a SUD.2 For example, a person with a medical condition unrelated to substance use can display confusion or fatigue. An employee may also frequently miss work due to a medical condition, not just from alcohol or drug use.2

If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), human resources (HR) can remind employees that this benefit is there to help.2


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