Recognizing Signs of Substance Misuse in the Workplace

A recent study found that 80% of HR decision-makers recognize that substance use disorder is impacting their employees. But, 25% feel unprepared to deal with the issue. How do you recognize the signs of substance misuse? What should you do if you suspect substance misuse in your workplace? And, how do you properly address these issues?

Recognizing Troubling Behaviors

While the signs aren’t always easy to detect, here are some troubling behaviors that may (but not always) indicate substance misuse:


Addressing Substance use Related Issues

Notification Policy

It is important for employees to know what actions to take if they suspect or observe substance use in the workplace. Employees should notify their supervisor or HR representative if they notice a co-worker exhibiting troubling behaviors. A swift response increases the chances of the situation being properly addressed.      

Addressing Issues with Employee

Employers should approach conversations about substance use disorder with caution and care. There should be legitimate, reasonable and documented observations that initiate the conversation.

Outside of drug testing, performance reviews are a good way to open the door to a more candid discussion about substance use. Consider asking questions such as, “I’ve noticed that you have missed quite a few deadlines in the past month.  Your performance has declined and it appears that you are having trouble concentrating. Is everything ok? Is there anything I can help with?

Some employees may take the opportunity to open up and share information about their substance use. In this case, the employer can begin discussing next steps and options (see below).

Denial of the issue can also occur. In this case, employers should move forward with standard procedures to address performance-related issues or inappropriate behavior. Clear expectations and consequences should be set. Continued performance discussions and any related issues should be addressed according to company disciplinary policies.*

Any and all disciplinary actions need to be based on performance, conduct, and adherence to workplace policies. They cannot be based on suspicion of addiction or substance use disorder.


The Society of Human Resource Management offers a comprehensive article on employing and managing those with substance use disorder.

*These are suggested practices. Employees, managers, supervisors and HR professionals should refer to their internal policies and procedures. Some employers and industries may have legal obligations to address substance use disorder in the workplace.

Providing Options

Once an employee has opened up and confirmed substance misuse or substance use disorder, there are a variety of options that an employer can provide.  

  • Recovery Coaching Services - Recovree provides coaching services that allow employees to remain employed throughout the coaching process. The coaching is done by phone, is easy to access, and traditionally comes at no cost to the employee.

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) - Some employers may offer Employee Assistance Programs, which can provide resources for those seeking help related to substance use disorder.

  • Treatment - There are employees who may benefit from in-patient or out-patient treatment. In this case, employers can help by providing treatment options with a resource such as the Fast-Tracker. Collaborating on a “Return-to-Work Plan” after treatment will help the employee feel confident for their return and eliminate concerns over losing their position.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to recognize or address substance misuse in your workplace, you can download our free Recovery Friendly Workplace Toolkit.