Overcoming Substance Abuse and How Workplaces Can Help - A black woman walking with head down in green coat

Overcoming Substance Abuse and How Workplaces Can Help

Dr. Alexis Custard-Mobley
February 15, 2023
February 7, 2023

This blog post was written by Dr. Alexis Custard-Mobley, Counselor and member of the Board of Clinical Operations at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

I’ll have just one more drink” can sometimes turn into four, six, eight, or more. Sometimes, what can seem like having fun or appear harmless can contribute to substance abuse, feeding a challenge that one is battling within their life. Currently, substance abuse disorders affect over 20 million Americans that are age 12 and older. Substance abuse can be defined as being dependent on a substance that is alcohol or drug related, including substances ranging from whiskey, cocaine, or prescription drugs. Drug dependence can lead to substance abuse in the workplace causing various problems for the individual, the company, the clients served, and those personally affected by the individual with the substance use challenge. 

The Impacts of Substance Abuse at Work

  1. Decreased Work Performance

Substance abuse can affect the workplace by causing the employee to not be able to perform at their best. This can lead to a decline in their performance, a decline in employee morale due to the way the employee is affecting their coworkers and those that must interact with the employee, as well as a potential decrease in revenue for the company. 

  1. Diminished Customer Experience

Substance abuse also has an effect on the clients that the company serves. Companies hire individuals for a specific skill set and to perform a job task. If the employee is not functioning at full capacity this can cause quality of results decline, which can eventually affect the clients and products or services on a larger scale. For example, if an employee is working as a project manager at a company and has a substance use problem, they may miss certain details that could be important for the project deadline, causing the project to be late and for the company to run as effectively as possible.

  1. Reduced Employee Morale

Substance abuse in the workplace can also reduce employee morale. The average person spends about 90,000 hours at work during their lifetime (Gettysburg College, 2021). Given that individuals in the U.S. spend more time at work than they do at home on a daily basis, it’s important to feel safe and comfortable at work (and for companies to support employee wellbeing). If a person has to go to work daily and be affected by someone with a substance abuse challenge that is overly excited, angry, tired to the point that their work isn’t getting done, smells of alcohol, or is difficult to work with, this can cause the employees around them to become less motivated or create a barrier within work relationships. 

Related: How to Boost Employee Morale

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Some warning signs of substance abuse in the workplace are: 

  1. Dilated pupils, smaller pupils than usual, or bloodshot eyeballs. 
  2. Uncommon smells on the someone’s breath, clothing, body, or impaired coordination. 
  3. Changes within one's eating habits, sleeping patterns, or physical appearance. 
  4. Excessive tardiness or a decline in work performance
  5. Legal issues 
  6. Abnormal mood swings 

Warning signs can come in the form of physical, behavioral, and/or psychological and leave individuals feeling embarrassed or hopeless. It is crucial to build a rapport with your co-workers as this can assist you with realizing the signs of substance abuse early on as well as assist with those difficult conversations if and when it is time to have one with an employee. Managers and leadership could take courses or trainings on the signs of substance abuse in the workplace to be more prepared for those difficult conversations and recognize the warning signs of substance abuse in the workplace early. The earlier one can see the signs, the better the company and person can be at helping to prevent and overcome substance abuse in the workplace. 

Some local facilities such as hospitals, therapy groups, private practices, or nonprofits affiliated with mental health and substance abuse offer continuing education credits or seminars on similar topics. Also, national websites like SAMHSA provide education and training as well. 

Related: 6 Signs Your Employees are Struggling with Mental Health

The Importance of Substance Abuse Education

One way to help overcome substance abuse in the workplace is through prevention education. 

If you and your employees are aware of the signs then it will be easier to address, determine, discuss, recognize, and help others. Ideally, employees will recognize they have an issue early on and decide to go to their supervisor to let them know that they will be checking themselves into treatment before the problem gets out of control. Understanding what substance abuse is and the severity of it will help managers and leaders be more empathetic and aware of the options that are available for individuals displaying signs of substance abuse in the workplace. 

Talking about drug use can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary step to supporting employees. There are many ways for companies to make sure that substance abuse in the workplace is addressed. 

Related: Why Talking About Mental Health at Work Should Be Okay

Prevention education not only helps to prevent but can also help to create a safe space for individuals and generate conversations around the topic as well as help those to become more familiar with substance abuse. Prevention education is not only to prevent but can also be used to help prevent a problem from becoming too out of control, build employee morale, and help normalize substance abuse. If employees are not ashamed about having an issue, it makes it a lot easier to address without anyone becoming defensive and can also help with rapport building. 

Substance Abuse Transition Programs

Having programs and policies in place at your company can help individuals with substance abuse transition back to their normal lives more quickly. Research shows that 1 in 10 Americans have reported having resolved a substance abuse issue. Some examples of what companies could have in place are: 

  1. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and/or an employee wellness program
  2. A drug-free workplace policy 
  3. Required employee trainings. 
  4. Drug testing 

1. EAPs

An Employee Assistance program (EAP) can assist employees with personal challenges that may be affecting their job performance. EAP’s can help find and address issues ranging from health, finances, social, mental health, and substance abuse. EAP’s are beneficial to many as they allow the employee to have around 3 to 12 free sessions per issue per year to speak with a therapist about whatever challenges they are having. This is paid for by the employer and kept confidential meaning your employer will not know that you utilized this service unless you tell them. EAP’s are often under-utilized because employees are unaware that they exist. It’s also important to remember that you can check with the therapist if they take your insurance before seeing them, that way if the issue exceeds your covered number of sessions, you can start using your insurance afterwards. 

Employee wellness programs are also a good option that employers can add as a benefit to employees. Wellness programs help improve individuals' health and fitness. Many insurance plans can offer wellness programs to those enrolled. Wellness programs assist employers by helping to offer premium discounts on things such as gym memberships, tuition reimbursement, and smoking cessation to name a few. Wellness programs are preventative and can assist employees with avoiding illness. The benefit of a wellness program is that it can be attached to an existing EAP to create a stronger experience for employees. 

2. Drug-free Workplace Policies

A drug-free workplace policy is important as it could inform employees immediately of expectations in the workplace. It could also outline specifics which may lead to questions from employees up front, leading to prevention education. A workplace policy could be effective if it has specifics about what the employee can do if they notice signs of substance abuse in the workplace, are having substance abuse challenges, or need to take off work due to substance abuse issues. This could include the number of days and how to go about requesting time off as well as what happens to the employees’ job while they are out seeking treatment. 

3. Required Employee Trainings

Required employee trainings are helpful as they also assist with prevention education, uncover unanswered questions, and create conversations within the workplace. They can also help to educate those who are unaware of substance abuse which can be helpful for an employee experiencing it for the first time or noticing substance abuse within a coworker. 

4. Drug Testing

Drug testing is beneficial as it generates evidence that the employee is struggling or using substances so the company can support the employee. It also helps to hold employees and the company accountable for dealing with the tough issues that may arise surrounding substance abuse. 

Addressing drug use in the workplace can be hard; however, it is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of the company, employees, and for professional and personal development. Addressing drugs in the workplace could change (and even save) someone’s life. It’s important to make sure to not judge the employee when speaking about their substance abuse. Stick to the facts and be empathic in your approach. This is a difficult time for the person, which is one of the reasons they are most likely using the substance(s). Remember that they are human too and we all have our challenges. Fully remote workplaces could also adhere to drug testing by setting up a contract with clinical laboratories and putting in the employee contracts that employees must be drug tested at the clinical laboratories however often the company desires. 

As a company leader, another way to address drug use is to be educated or educate yourself on substance abuse and how it can begin. Substance abuse can be hereditary or as simple as a way to forget about the challenge that one does not want to endure. 

It's essential to be aware of risk factors associated with substance abuse. Is there something within the company that is triggering? If the majority of your employees are turning to substances, there may be something within your company structure that you can test or change to help overcome this challenge in the future. 

Substance abuse can be a scary thing. Remember to be kind, stick to the facts, and that we are all in this together.

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take the place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Dr. Alexis Custard-Mobley
Dr. Alexis Custard-Mobley
Dr. Alexis Custard-Mobley is the a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, and Acudetox Specialist. She has her Doctorate degree in Sport and Performance Psychology. She is also a content creator and board member for Nivati. She also works in operations and is passionate about data, training, educating, and learning. Her 2-in-1 children's book is a passion project she created in her Master's program that educates youth and families on different mental illnesses. She has worked with a vast majority of populations and feels that everyone has the power to change if they desire and with the right resources.