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Coping with Substance Abuse Problems in the Workplace

Right now, there are 20 million Americans who are struggling with issues related to substance abuse. Of course, it stands to reason that with that many people having a substance abuse problem, some of them could be working right alongside us in the workplace. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of those 20 million people are employed in full-time positions.

As difficult as it may be to address these sorts of issues, employers are worse off for ignoring them. Not only will they suffer a loss of productivity and perhaps even profits because of an employee's struggles, but other employees' safety could be at risk. This can leave the employer vulnerable to an expensive and long-term lawsuit that might have otherwise been avoided, had the employer taken the time to address the employee's substance abuse problem.

Employers can be proactive by writing a clear, drug-free workplace policy that includes language about how such behavior will not be tolerated, as well as where employees can go to seek help insofar as confidential counseling programs are concerned. The policy must also define substance abuse and explain what goes into the drug testing process. Employers can also use the policy to communicate to employees how they will be disciplined, should they show up for work while under the influence or take drugs while on the job.

Most important for the policy to note is that the employee's privacy and confidentiality rights will be maintained, from the moment they ask for help. All of the details concerning their treatment will go no further than their employer and those who are helping them.

If employers have a clear policy that is accessible to all of their employees, and if an employer has spoken to an employee regarding performance issues stemming from his or her substance abuse problem, and the employee's performance continues to worsen or stay the same, then the employer should feel justified in terminating that worker's employment.

Termination has to be one of the most difficult aspects for any employer. The employer has to determine when the employee's substance abuse problems have become such an impediment that the employer has no choice but to turn the employee loose. If the employee must miss work due to seeking treatment however, then in most cases the employer must make reasonable accommodations for the employee to both take off from work and make a smooth transition back to work.

The employer can choose to terminate an employee right away if that employee is exhibiting behaviors that are in line with substance abuse issues and that are having a direct effect on his performance. However, the employer may want to tread lightly and see about helping the employee seek help first, as some employees may be in such denial that they do not even realize they have a problem until someone tries to help them by pointing it out.
Private employers can drug test their employees however often and by whatever method they see fit, as directed under the law. However, companies must follow the specific rules laid out for testing employees who work in jobs that can be considered "safety-sensitive."