Helping Employees with Substance Abuse Problems

Learn more about substance abuse awareness, prevention, and rehabilitation, as well as coping methods for employees and/or their loved ones.

How Is Substance Abuse Defined?

According to the World Health Organization, “Substance abuse refers to the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.” These substances can lead to “dependence syndrome,” which is characterized by behavioral, cognitive, and physiological issues that develop as a result of consistent use.

The effects of substance abuse typically include the following:

  • An overwhelming desire to consume drugs or alcohol
  • The inability to control the use of these substances despite negative consequences
  • Prioritizing drugs and alcohol over more important activities or functions
  • Increased intolerance when using these substances
  • Physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal in the absence of drugs or alcohol


Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

A recent study conducted by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency reported the following statistics regarding workplace intoxication:

  • Employees struggling with alcohol addiction were 2.7 times more likely to suffer injuries leading to work absences
  • 11 percent of workplace fatalities involved employees who had been drinking
  • 24 percent of employees admit to drinking during working hours at least once in the past year

Often, the signs and symptoms of substance abuse can be difficult to observe or interpret, especially with younger individuals or those who have yet to enter the throes of full-fledged addiction. Still, there are several behaviors and physical traits your employees might be exhibiting if they are dealing with substance abuse issues.

General physical signs of substance abuse include:

  • Laziness
  • Weight loss
  • Trembling
  • Red eyes
  • Uncharacteristic lack of hygiene
  • Hyperactivity
  • Excessive speech
  • Comprised balance or coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Consistent nausea
  • Needle marks
  • Consistent, unshakeable cough
  • Noticeably swollen, red, or pale face
  • Regular nose rubbing
  • Grinding jaw

General behavioral signs of substance abuse include:

  • Decrease in performance and/or output
  • Increased tardiness
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Decreased attention span
  • Crankiness (“Short fuse”)
  • Dishonesty
  • Paranoia
  • Moodiness
  • Secretive behavior
  • Judgmental attitude

Signs of workplace intoxication vary somewhat by substance:


  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated pupils
  • Strong breath
  • Disinterested attitude
  • Inexplicable and/or excessive laughter


  • Red eyes
  • Strong “earthy” scent
  • Inexplicable and/or excessive laughter
  • Excessive eating


  • Grinding teeth
  • Excessive nose rubbing
  • Red eyes
  • Hyperactivity
  • Excessive speech


  • Slurred speech
  • Sleepiness
  • Needle marks
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dilated pupils


  • Acting drunk without the attached scent
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination issues
  • Poor judgment
  • Contracted pupils


  • Watery eyes
  • Rash around the mouth or nose
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability


  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Aggressive attitude toward people and inanimate objects
  • Mood swings
  • Slurred speech

In a vacuum, exhibiting individual signs and symptoms does not necessarily imply that someone is struggling with addiction or is intoxicated, and not everyone will exhibit these typical symptoms of substance abuse. However, since symptoms like the ones previously listed could point toward substance abuse or mental or emotional health issues, it’s important that they are observed closely and addressed directly but delicately.

How You Can Help Employees Dealing with Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can be a difficult and sensitive topic to broach with employees, but if they are consistently exhibiting signs and symptoms like the ones listed previously, your efforts could be the influencing factor that helps them get their lives together and become better employees. Consider some or all of following tips in addressing this delicate issue with employees whom you are concerned might be dealing with substance abuse issues.

  • Many people derive their worth from their employment, meaning they might be willing or even eager to address their problem with management or colleagues.
  • Creating communication initiatives that are focused on empathy and anonymity, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), are more likely to produce positive results.
  • Let your employees know that their employer is willing to provide confidential short-term counseling, assessment, and referrals to treatment programs without punishment.
  • Create and enforce a drug- and alcohol-free workplace policy
  • Include substance abuse treatment and management as part of your company’s health benefits package.
  • Maintain an open-door policy that encourages employees to come to you or their other superiors with any problems they are having ― work-related or otherwise.
  • Develop annual education initiatives about the dangers of substance abuse and the proper channels to seek help should employees find themselves dealing with addiction.


Drugs and alcohol in the workplace. (2015, April 26). NCADD. 

Substance abuse. (2016). World Health Organization. Retrieved from