Mental & Behavioral Health

How Employers Manage Persons with Addictions


According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) it is estimated that 76 percent of people with drug and alcohol problems are employed. Given this statistic, it is imperative for employers to understand such staggering numbers and how to deal with them. With 28 states and Washington DC legalizing marijuana for either recreational use or medical use and these unprecedented numbers of employees facing drug and alcohol addiction issues, employers face an uphill battle with determining what an actual problem versus what may be considered recreational.

It is important to know the facts about addiction, how to see the signs, and what to do about them in the process.The crisis of addiction in the US is at record-breaking numbers, and this infiltrates the workforce. It is important to recognize the signs and to address them accordingly. But first, HR must have a workplace substance abuse policy implemented, and understand the ways to go about guiding employees that are exhibiting signs of alcohol or drug abuse. There are legal aspects of which employers may be concerned.

Take for example when Old Dominion Freight Line was ordered to pay a former driver $119,612 for a disability bias due to denial of reasonable accommodation. While illegal drug use is never protected under the ADA, recovering addicts are protected. Having a buttoned-up drug free workplace policy that includes education for all employees on drug and alcohol addiction can protect employers from such lawsuits. There are several things that employers should consider regarding alcohol and drug addiction with their employees and ways to compromise and retain talent even in the face of the issue of addiction.

Everyone knows about the EAP, and these programs are great for offering an employee the confidence to report issues they may be having without being targeted. But if an employee is not taking steps to get well or is in denial, it is not the employers responsibility to keep them employed if the productivity is under par. The Employer is obligated to have proper documentation of such issues and must present these issues to the employee with deadlines for correction. With proper documentation, an employer has every right to terminate an employee who is underperforming.

The important balancing act requires employers understand the facts on replacing top talent.  According to SAMHSA, replacing an employee costs 25 percent to almost to almost 200 percent of annual compensation, not including the loss of institutional knowledge, service continuity, coworker productivity, and morale that can accompany employee turnover. The average cost for inpatient care in the US according to the US Department of Defense reported fees from $2,000 - $25,000 or more depending on a variety of factors.  Comparing that to the cost of replacing top talent and the ramifications of the loss in productivity and morale as well as revenue alone makes sense that investing in your employee for treatment may be a better option than replacing top talent with a new employee. Some signs that indicate an employee may have a drug or alcohol problem:

  • Frequent absences including excessive use of sick days.
  • Frequent disappearances from work and improbable excuses
  • Unreliability in keeping appointments and meeting deadlines
  • High and low productivity that alternates between long periods
  • Errors and oversights of simple tasks
  • Personal and professional isolation
  • Confusion or difficulty recalling conversations

Employers need to be cautious when confronting an employee with suspected drug or alcohol abuse. This is because there could be legitimate reasons for such symptoms such as allergies or other health issues. If employers do not conduct drug testing, the best solution is to utilize performance and conduct meetings that properly document productivity issues, which can open the door to more candid conversations. If an employee does divulge information about health issues or coping with an adjustment to new medications, an employer should start discussions about reasonable accommodations or leave options that are available such as FMLA.

Employers do have the option to refer employees to EAP and or institute a return-to-work agreement instead of terminating an employee. FMLA provides an employee the ability to take the time and get help, and of course, this is the employee's decision. Employers also have the right to have a "no-tolerance" policy, but once again an employer must ensure that they document any productivity and other work-related problems before action is taken.

About the Author

Jenny Jenkins is a wellbeing professional who works with HR and Insurance Professionals through the Corporate Health & Wellness Association to create education programs on a myriad of Health, Benefits, and wellbeing topics. To learn more about this issue or other issues such as mental health in the workplace you can contact the CHWA at 561-790-1176.  Employers, Brokers, and Insurance Professionals are invited to attend the Healthcare Revolution, Oct. 28-30, 2018 to hear from the nations top employers and government organizations about these and other disruptive topics and how to address them in the workplace.

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