Addiction isn’t always obvious. It doesn’t have to manifest as boozy breath or a damning police blotter report. Sometimes addiction looks like plain old stress, with the bleary eyes and work blunders that tend to go along with it.
So what should well-meaning employees do when they suspect a coworker is addicted to drugs or alcohol?
Signs of addiction include behavioral changes, mood swings, memory lapses, tardiness and deterioration in job performance.
“Often, we’ll see a change in personality. Someone cheerful becomes irritable and withdrawn. Someone reliable becomes irresponsible and starts coming in late or calling in sick,” says addiction psychiatrist Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in Los Angeles and Malibu, Fla. “We might see changes in appearance, including significant weight loss or a change in hygiene.”
Disappearing acts are common, because abusers who have a hangover or are unable to make it through the day without using will go someplace to tend to the problem.
However, none of these signs or symptoms are proof positive that drugs or alcohol are involved. “There could be any number of other causes. There’s still cause for concern, but you don’t want to make false accusations,” says San Diego psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss.
Addicts who are in denial tend to lash out when others suggest they have a problem. “As well-meaning as it is to try to intervene first, it’s often best in an occupational setting to go to HR or a supervisor,” Reiss says.
In return for a coworker’s concern, an addict trying to deflect attention from his or her own problem might go so far as to spread rumors and false allegations about the perceived accuser. “Or they can just make your life miserable,” says Reiss, who has seen it happen.
Don’t voice suspicions to administrators; instead, focus on observable behavior pertaining to work performance or safety issues.
“I always encourage people to make complaints to HR instead of a supervisor because they are familiar with the resources available to aid employees,” says employment law attorney Rosemary Gousman, adding that HR professionals also understand “duty to accommodate” requirements, or the steps employers must take to avoid discrimination.
Depending on the relationship, it may feel more appropriate to approach the person first. In that case, “Don’t make any accusations,” Reiss advises. “Just say, ‘I’m concerned. Are things OK with you? It seems like there’s something going on.’ Then measure their response.”
If the person is receptive, perhaps it’s OK to talk more frankly or simply point out resources that are available online or through human resources, such as an employee assistance program. Someone who is suffering and in need of help “may appreciate the person expressing concern for them,” Sack says.
But a hostile or negative response is a sign to back off without jumping to conclusions. It could be the person is stressed out, suffering from a psychiatric or medical problem or distracted by personal issues.
“You have to remember, most people at any point in life can be under stress and you have no way of knowing if their behavior is because of a divorce, an ill child or a death in the family,” Sack says.
Legally, employees are under no obligation to report a coworker’s addictive or suspicious behaviors even when safety is at stake, although specific workplace policies and procedures — in the healthcare or transportation industries, for example — may require them to do so or face disciplinary action.
“Think about it: If you’re at a bar and someone gets in their car and you know they’ve been drinking heavily, do you have a legal obligation to report them? No,” says Gousman, managing partner of the New Jersey office of Fisher & Phillips.
However, “There’s no question that people who use alcohol or drugs are more susceptible to workplace injuries,” Sack says. And where safety and the success of a team are concerned, employees might feel a moral obligation to speak up, all legalities aside.
“Some companies, especially government contractors, have a number you can call anonymously because some people are reluctant to get involved,” Gousman says.
While reporting substandard performance may seem like threatening a suspected addict’s livelihood, in the end, it might save his or her job — and life. “Often, people’s incentive to get help is the prospect of losing their job,” Gousman says.
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