The Effects of Substance Abuse on the Employee’s Job Performance

The Effects of Substance Abuse on the Employee’s Job Performance

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 70% of adults who have alcohol or drug use disorders are employed.

Due to the prevalence of substance abuse in a variety of workplaces, employers need to understand how addiction can affect job performance, and how to address concerns. 

The worrying effects of drug and alcohol abuse on job performance at work have employers redefining how to answer the question of what is an alcoholic or drug addict. 

The stereotypical alcoholic or drug addict may be thought of as someone who is homeless, unemployed, and poorly adjusted.

In fact, addiction does not discriminate. People of all different backgrounds are at risk of substance abuse, and the effects on job performance can manifest in different ways.



Work-Related Risk Factors of Addiction

One of the most common risk factors of chronic alcohol and drug abuse is stress. Work-related stress affects employees in a variety of industries and occupations, including on-site and work-from-home employees

Employees who started working from home due to the pandemic may find themselves dealing with new challenges and unique stressors of virtual office environments. For instance, the isolating effects of remote work can be difficult to adjust to. 

When stress accumulates to an overwhelming level, people often have difficulty coping, and can develop mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. They may also have pre-existing mental health issues and a lower threshold for stress tolerance.

Workplace stress can affect mental health in the following ways:

  • Increased anxiety due to pressure to perform optimally
  • Negative impacts on self-esteem and self-image
  • Negative effects on personal relationships
  • Fear of losing a job or promotion
  • Pressure to compete with coworkers
  • Pressure to make deadlines or exceed expectations

Stress can also affect physical health by causing:

  • Elevated blood pressure or hypertension
  • Cardiac stress and heart conditions
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Decreased or increased appetite and poor eating habits
  • Insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Metabolic syndrome diseases such as diabetes

To cope with stressors such as performance anxiety or highly competitive work environments, some people begin self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. They may use stimulants to increase their productivity, or alcohol and anti-anxiety medications to decrease their tension. This can rapidly result in chemical dependence.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Symptoms of early substance abuse or advanced addiction often vary from person to person, depending on the severity of abuse and the behavioral signs they exhibit. 

Some employees may simply be better at hiding their symptoms than others. For remote employees, the signs may be less evident and harder to identify.

To help employees who may be struggling with substance abuse that could be affecting their jobs, managers and HR personnel need to be able to recognize the warning signs. Warning signs are unusual behaviors that could indicate drug or alcohol dependence.

Common substance abuse warning signs and behavioral characteristics include:

  • Chronic absences from work, frequent disappearances from work without probable excuses 
  • Often coming to work late or leaving early without warning or reason
  • Difficulty meeting job expectations or deadlines
  • Chronic fatigue, exhaustion, hyperactivity, manic episodes, slurred speech, dilated pupils, unsteady gait, bloodshot eyes
  • Interpersonal conflicts with peers, colleagues, subordinates or managers
  • Unusually frequent mistakes due to poor judgment or inattentiveness
  • Inability to focus, unresponsiveness, lack of follow-through
  • Personal and professional isolation and withdrawal
  • Noticeable deterioration or lack in personal hygiene and appearance
  • Other unusual or unpredictable behavior, such as aggression or compulsivity

If employees feel ashamed of their substance abuse, they may be unwilling to admit they have a substance use disorder, or may not even be aware of their problem. They could be in denial, or they may believe that working from home prevents the signs and behaviors of substance abuse patterns from being noticed.

Managers may misunderstand the reasons behind substandard work performance if they are unaware of an employee’s current mental health condition. It is important that they have awareness of employees’ mental health needs, and encourage transparent communication with human resources to have support. 

Mental Health Awareness in the Workplace

Mental health awareness in the workplace has been an increasingly prevalent concern that companies have started investing in for the safety and health of employees. Promoting mental health awareness and support can mitigate the risks and effects of addiction, and create a healthier, more productive workforce that fosters transparency.

Companies and employers generally have policies in place to address issues concerning substance abuse and mental health issues for their employees. These policies are meant to protect the employees’ reputation and job security in case of a health concern and to maintain the company’s standards for health and safety. 

Human Resources Involvement and Intervention

When there is suspicion of substance abuse and evidence that it could be affecting job performance, addressing the issue requires a professional yet sensitive and tactful approach. Confrontation with someone with an addiction can easily backfire or result in misunderstandings. 

Confrontation and intervention regarding potential addiction are challenging for everyone involved, whether it is between family members, work colleagues, or managers and subordinates. It is a sensitive and personal matter that requires tact and discretion.

Human resources should provide a safe and supportive outlet for employees to be transparent about any personal health issues that are affecting their job performance. It should be made clear from the beginning that all information reported to HR is entirely confidential. 

Concerns about job security can affect transparency, and people often attempt to hide any personal matters that are affecting their work for fear of getting fired. Having a mental health and discretion policy in place is essential to make them feel safe about coming forward.

Helping Employees Get Substance Abuse Treatment

Corporate practices now generally employ a more preventative and proactive approach to substance abuse and addiction issues in the workplace than they did in the past. Providing resources to employees with substance use disorders is a proven way of encouraging them to take the initiative with getting professional addiction treatment. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from discrimination in the workplace due to substance abuse and entitles them to have access to treatment and rehabilitation opportunities. 

Although the ADA does not condone alcohol or illegal drug use in work environments, it does enable equal access to supportive resources for employees in recovery, or employees who express genuine intent to get sober.

The Job Accommodation Network also provides guidance and support for employees and employers in circumstances of substance use disorders affecting job performance. 

Final Takeaway

Addiction is never a choice or moral failing, and many Americans struggle with some form of substance abuse at some point in their lives and careers. The stressors of work can often be a risk factor of substance abuse, and some people have pre-existing mental health conditions that increase their vulnerability to addiction.

Drug and alcohol dependence and addiction can rapidly escalate beyond an individual’s control, and will inevitably interfere with their functionality and productivity at work. The longer they keep addiction a secret, the more it will destroy their personal and professional lives.

By prioritizing the mental health of employees and encouraging them to seek help when they need it, employers can optimize workplace morale and performance metrics. Nowadays, organizations are prioritizing mental health awareness initiatives and full inclusion of employees with any mental health disabilities or disorders.

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