Ways to Help a Colleague Struggling with Substance Abuse

If you suspect one of your coworkers has a problem with drugs or alcohol, you may be worried and unsure about how to handle the situation. Substance use in the workplace can lead to carelessness on the job and to situations that may put employees in harm’s way. This page will educate you on the steps to take if you believe a colleague or employee is struggling with addiction.

What to Do if You Suspect a Coworker is Struggling with Addiction

Substance use disorder is prevalent in the U.S. workforce, with more than 13 million employees struggling with addiction.2

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that workplaces can be a “critical point of contact” for those who have substance use disorders and that in ideal situations, the employee will receive needed support in the workplace.2

Handling a suspected drug or alcohol issue with a coworker is very different than attempting to help a family member or friend. It is important to not try and diagnose a substance use disorder; that should be left to a medical professional.3 However, recognizing the signs and symptoms of substance use can help you determine the next steps to take.3

Signs That a Colleague May Be Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

Knowing the signs of drug or alcohol misuse can be useful to help figure out if a coworker may be struggling. The signs of substance use in the workplace may include physical, emotional, and behavioral changes such as:2,3,4

  • Bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils.
  • Tremors.
  • Unsteady or staggering walk.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Blackouts.
  • Irritability or agitation.
  • Defensiveness.
  • Depression.
  • Mood swings.
  • Carelessness.
  • Frequently being late or absent.
  • Noticeable drop in job performance/increased mistakes or carelessness.
  • Change in professional appearance or hygiene.
  • Not following safety rules.
  • Disappearing from the workplace.

How to Talk to Your Employer About a Coworker Who is Abusing Substances

Talking to a supervisor about a coworker’s suspicious behavior may be difficult for some employees. For example, they may feel responsible if their coworker gets in trouble or even loses their job. However, it is important to remember that addressing the concern can help a colleague in the long run.4

First, document all incidents and be objective including specific observed behavior with the dates and times.4 Next, discuss the concerns with a supervisor or other senior colleague at work.5 This will enable the supervisor to evaluate the situation and determine an appropriate course of action. If there is an immediate situation that sparks concern, share it with the person in charge at the time.5 Be sure to review the HR policy and bring all the required documentation of suspected substance misuse and incidents to a supervisor and/or HR professional in your workplace.5

For Supervisors: Addressing Substance Use in an Employee

Supervisors have a responsibility to protect the safety of the employees and the work environment.6 Ideally management will make all employees aware of the company’s substance use policy upon employment.6 As soon as a supervisor suspects may have violated the policy (for example, has shown up to work impaired) or notices concerning changes in an employee’s work performance, they have a responsibility to address the situation.3,6 The supervisor should begin to document everything including date, time, detailed observations, any actions taken, and employee responses.4

Once substance use in the workplace is identified and documented, Human Resources (HR) is typically responsible for advising the supervisor on disciplinary actions.6 A manager or HR representative may also meet with the employee, in a quiet place away from others, to point out the concerning behaviors.3 The supervisor or HR manager may bring up the Employee Assistance Program, also known as EAP, which can help employees with personal issues, including drug- or alcohol-related problems.6

Using Employee Medical Leave for Addiction Treatment

There are multiple laws that protect workers seeking addiction treatment. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, employees can be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to receive treatment for a substance use disorder.7 In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that employers cannot discriminate against someone because they have a history of substance use and are in recovery or they are enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program; however, it does not protect an employee who is currently using drugs in the workplace.7

Employers who have employees who take leave may wish to put a “Return to Work Agreement” in place for when the employee returns.8 The agreement sets expectations for behavior at work after returning from addiction treatment.8 This type of agreement can also help supervisors outline disciplinary actions that may take place if the guidelines are not followed.8

Will Insurance Cover My Colleague’s Treatment?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes substance use disorders as one of the ten essential health benefits. This means that many insurance plans now offer coverage for substance use disorder treatment.9 However, coverage varies by plan so it’s important employees check coverage by calling the number on the back of their insurance card, reading their Summary of Benefits and Coverage or by .

For those who are not insured, or are underinsured, many programs have flexible payment plans to make treatment more accessible. Different treatment options have different costs. If your colleague is unable to afford inpatient care, outpatient or telehealth programs may be an affordable alternative.

Don’t let addiction take control of your life any longer. Call us today at to learn more about addiction treatment at AdCare. There are two inpatient AdCare facilities, one Massachusetts rehab, and one Rhode Island rehab. AdCare also offers outpatient treatment and has sister facilities across the United States as well. Call us today to learn more about our comprehensive addiction treatment options.



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AdCare has multiple locations throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, making it easily accessible to most parts of New England. We offer an integrated system of care and have been helping individuals and families struggling with addiction for 45 years. Take the next step toward recovery: learn more about our addiction treatment programs in MA and RI or learn about how rehab is affordable for everyone.