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Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Learn about workplace drug abuse and how to help coworkers with suspected addiction in this comprehensive article.

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Workplace Drug Abuse Effects

The devastating physical and emotional impacts of ongoing substance abuse inevitably affect employers and the workplace as a whole. Job performance, inability to focus, illicit activities, and physical and behavioral changes are common examples of how drug and alcohol abuse can impact businesses individually and company-wide. Additional examples include:

  • Poor decision making
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Lower workplace morale
  • Theft
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Higher insurance costs
  • Loss of efficiency
  • Higher turnover rates
  • Costs associated with procuring, training, and retaining new employees
  • Increased disciplinary activities
Workplace Drug Abuse

Financial Losses

The effects of workplace drug abuse by employees can be problematic for businesses. Research suggests that the financial losses to companies in the United States related to alcohol and drug abuse by employees total over $81 billion annually.1

These numbers do not include the costs associated with diverting company resources toward addressing substance abuse in the workplace.

Signs of Workplace Drug Abuse

Due to regular contact with coworkers, the signs and symptoms of drug abuse may appear more noticeable in the workplace. For instance, some physical and behavioral changes abnormal to a coworker’s usual demeanor may stand out.

Behavior and Personality Changes

When someone has a drug or alcohol use disorder, notable changes in their personality and behavior are common. In many cases, no clear or identifiable cause explains a noticeable shift in their mood. Behavioral signs that may indicate substance abuse in the workplace include:

  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Problems focusing
  • Moodiness
  • Poor work ethic
  • Lack of motivation

Physical Changes

Physical symptoms of substance abuse are often more apparent when compared to psychological signs. The most common side effects of addiction employers may see include:

  • Red, watery eyes
  • Runny noses and sniffles
  • Sweaty palms
  • Shaking hands
  • A general loss of interest in personal care and hygiene

Drug Withdrawal Signs at the Workplace

When someone addicted to drugs or alcohol tries to stop or reduce their use, they will generally experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms generally fall into two categories, physical and psychological. Depending on the substance or substances and the severity of the addiction, withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming and, in some cases, dangerous.

Although withdrawal symptoms look different from person to person, there are a variety of common indications of drug withdrawal that you may notice in an addicted coworker, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • High temperature and/or chills
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Restlessness
  • Vivid, unpleasant dreams
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking and shivering

Pandemic and Remote Work Worsen Substance Abuse in the Workplace

The pandemic and remote work have affected substance abuse in the workplace significantly. Since June 2020, 13% of people in the United States have initiated or increased substance use in an attempt to cope with the pandemic.2

Scope of Workplace Drug Use

Further, a 2021 national survey examining just over one thousand employees showed the following information:3

  • 21% of survey respondents reported witnessing coworkers under the influence of marijuana, alcohol, or another recreational drug during a virtual work meeting.
  • 38% reported increasing alcohol consumption, and over 50% reported increasing marijuana consumption during the pandemic.
  • More than one-quarter of respondents reported that an added benefit of remote work is the opportunity to use alcohol or drugs during the work day.
  • 57% of respondents who used marijuana also increased their alcohol intake, with 58% increasing consumption by two or more drinks per day.

It is important to note that this survey is small by scientific research standards. It considers a very limited number of participants compared to the staggering number of remote work employees nationwide. Researchers should likely conduct additional research to determine the effects of remote work and workplace drug abuse.

Business Impact of Substance Abuse

The impacts of workplace drug abuse extend beyond the employee and their coworkers. According to several research studies, employees who abuse alcohol and drugs:4

  • Are less productive
  • Use three times more sick days
  • Are more likely to cause injury to themselves or a coworker
  • Are five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim

Another survey showed that an estimated 9% of the workforce had a substance use disorder, with 6.7% having an alcohol use disorder.5

How to Approach a Coworker With Suspected Alcohol Abuse

Those engaging in workplace drug abuse are putting themselves and their coworkers in danger and dramatically reducing workplace morale as responsibilities shift to other team members. Whether you are a peer or a supervisor, it is crucial to understand how to handle workplace addiction.

Why Early Intervention Is Vital

Suppose you believe that a colleague has a drug or alcohol abuse disorder. In that case, you can begin determining the best way to encourage them to take active steps toward recovery. As an employer, you want staff members to feel comfortable approaching you for help and resources.

Remember that early intervention is key. The earlier an employee or coworker seeks help to overcome addiction, the more successful and effective the addiction treatment program is.


Denial is not uncommon, and it could take time for someone with a drug or alcohol use disorder to acknowledge a problematic relationship with substances. If you do talk to your coworker directly, be patient and understanding.

Offer to look through the employee handbook with them or provide phone numbers they can call for information about employee assistance programs. These resources can help them find an addiction treatment program like Great Oaks Recovery Center.

    Workplace Drug Abuse

    What Should Employers Do to Address Substance Abuse in the Workplace?

    Consider the following to help reduce substance abuse in the workplace and ensure employees have access to resources when needed.


    First, it is important to raise awareness and educate staff on substance abuse, drug-free workplaces, and helpful resources. Everyone must understand that a drug-free environment will inevitably be safer and more productive.


      Employers must show support and set the right tone for drug-free workplace efforts. Employees need to understand the goals of these new programs and how they relate to their job duties. When an employer takes this approach, employees are more likely to want to participate.

        Resources Available

        Finally, help employees by providing information about ways they can reach out for help, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAP programs are excellent options for employees to learn about addiction treatment and mental health care resources.
        Employers can also provide information about treatment programs in the area, like Great Oaks Recovery Center, where they can call to learn more about outpatient and residential treatment options.

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