Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace

All employers should have a written and clearly-spelt-out drug and alcohol policy in place. It is important for employees to feel safe and secure enough to be able to come forward and admit it when you have a substance abuse problem, which is why an official workplace policy should be supportive rather than threatening. As long as an employee is willing to get help, they should be given a chance to go to rehab and get clean, without being scared that they will lose their jobs.


When employers are supportive in this way, not only will it make those with substance abuse problems more likely to come forward, but it will also make co-workers feel more comfortable getting involved if they know their friend and colleague will not be facing automatic termination if the truth is revealed. Have everyone looking out for each other, in a field where its vital employees are clean – such as construction – also provide regular drug testing.

Drug and alcohol abuse share many of the same symptoms, here are a few main ones to look out for.

Behavioural signs of drug or alcohol abuse include:

  • Increased aggression or irritability. Like overreaction to criticism or helpful suggestions
  • Changes in attitude/personality, lethargic and/or depressed.
  • Dramatic changes in habits and/or priorities.
  • Financial problems.
  • Involvement in criminal activity.
  • Frequent lateness or unexplained absences.
  • Inconsistent on-the-job performance, high and low productivity, especially low in the mornings.
  • Frequent small accidents resulting in minor injuries or broken objects.
  • Becoming closed off eg not wanting to talk about hobbies, family life, or personal interests when they didn’t have a problem with it in the past.

Physical signs of substance abuse include:

  • Unusual physical symptoms or behaviours (unsteady gait, hyperactive/manic activity, sudden weight loss, dental problems, wearing long sleeves on hot days, etc.)
  • A sudden lack of concern over personal appearance and hygiene.
  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes.
  • Dilated or constricted pupils.
  • Abrupt weight changes.
  • Bruises, infections, or other physical signs at the drug’s entrance site on the body.

Remember, someone suffering from drug or alcohol abuse may show no outward signs or you may not be able to pick up on them, which is why random drug testing is also an important way to help your employees stay safe in a dangerous working environment.

If you’re working in a field that requires you to operate heavy machinery or a high-risk job like construction having drugs in your system can be fatal for you or someone else. Drugs and alcohol impair your motor skills and reaction time, if you need help and substance abuse is getting out of hand it’s important to speak up before you or someone else could get seriously injured or killed.

What about if you suspect an employee is dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction? As a manager/employer, you may not have much contact with the people working for you however you do have access to things their colleagues don’t – depending on the field you’re in, like paperwork and whether they’re hitting deadlines for things they’re meant to hand in. You can ask their workmates if they’ve noticed any strange changes in behaviour or if they’ve had suspicions that there’s something up.

When people with a drug or alcohol problem get fired they often start to spiral even deeper as they feel hopeless. They may feel worthless if they can’t provide for their families and themselves and seek solace in drinking and drug abuse. This is why having treatment and rehabilitation as the next step instead of termination will decrease drug and alcohol use in New Zealand, and is why it’s vital more workplaces shift into this mindset.

What do you do if you suspect a colleague is dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction? Do you tell your employer or do you try to talk to them about it, even though you hardly know them? It’s important to let your employer know so that they can say something before anything gets out of hand. Hopefully, your workplace has a process to help your colleague get and stay clean; if not – recommend this article to your employer.

If you have a drug or alcohol problem don’t suffer in silence – it’s important to seek help. It can be scary telling your boss but it’s better than being fired because you acted out and lost your dignity or even causing an accident because you were under the influence. Speaking up about it also means you can get help before it gets too out of control and maybe even keep your job.