Addiction Guide for Colleagues

3 min read · 7 sections
This guide will detail what you can do as a colleague or supervisor when someone you work with is dealing with a substance abuse issue.
What you will learn:
Spotting the signs of a coworker abusing substances
How to avoid enabling a coworker
What supervisors can do to help address substance abuse in the workplace
Options for medical leave and addiction treatments

Addiction Guide for Colleagues

Addiction touches the lives of many people, including those in the workplace. It is quite a different experience to confront the problem with a loved one versus a colleague at work or one of your own employees.

If you are working with someone who you believe is suffering from an addiction, you might have serious concerns about their well-being. Perhaps you are their manager, and worry that they may endanger the lives of others in the workplace. If you handle the situation poorly, however, you may fear breaking an employment law or regulation, or it could make working with the other person awkward after addressing the issue.


How to Know if a Colleague Is Abusing Substances?

Many potential signs that someone may be using alcohol and/or drugs at work can also be symptoms of depression, anxiety, or a physical illness. However, when you see more than one of these symptoms occurring, regardless of whether it is associated with substance abuse addiction or not, it is likely that the problem should be addressed.

Common physical symptoms of intoxication and substance use include:1

  • Drowsiness or falling asleep on the job.
  • Tremors.
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Constricted or dilated pupils.
  • Runny nose.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Unsteady gait.

Emotional and behavioral symptoms of substance abuse include:1

  • Mood swings.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Isolation and withdrawal.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Impaired concentration.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Paranoia.

Work behaviors that can be associated with substance abuse include: 1

  • Disappearing from the work area.
  • Lateness.
  • Frequent absences.
  • Noticeable drop in job performance.
  • Outrageous excuses for behavior.
  • Disorganization.
  • Increased mistakes and errors.
  • Not following safety rules.

Avoid Enabling in the Workplace

Often, when a coworker or employee exhibits enough of these signs of substance abuse, you may feel certain that they are abusing drugs or alcohol. However, when faced with this situation at work, colleagues will often be reluctant to intervene. One of the major reasons to not deal with the issue directly is the fear that the person will lose their job.

In these situations, coworkers and even managers will try to cover up for the impaired person, in a process called enabling. While it is tempting to help them avoid the consequences of their behaviors, it does not help and can be interpreted as enabling. It may seem at first that this enabling is a way of caring or helping but enabling allows the person to continue to use without facing any consequences and prolongs the inevitable.2

Advice for Colleagues

If you suspect that a co-worker has a substance abuse problem, do not try to diagnose the problem. Follow these tips instead:

  • Document incidents and record time and dates.
  • Go to your supervisor.
  • Consult your human resources department for guidance.

Advice for Supervisors

Supervisor discussing employees performance and concerns about substance abuse with HR representative

As a supervisor, you must ensure the safety of your employees and customers, and guide the employee you supervise in meeting your departmental or company objectives. If you suspect an employee is impaired while at work, you have a responsibility to address the situation.3

Your decision to intervene with an employee cannot be based on gossip. You need to have a reasonable suspicion that the employee is intoxicated while at work. You are not diagnosing the employee but rather dealing with performance-related issues that come up in the workplace, such as poor job performance, attendance, and behaviors such as sleeping on the job or lashing out at coworkers.

It is different to approach an employee, rather than a friend, regarding suspicions of drug use in the workplace. If the employee performs work that requires a high level of safety and stands a high chance of injury to themselves or others if the work is performed while impaired (i.e. driving a vehicle, performing surgery, handling dangerous materials), you must immediately intervene and remove the person from their work area.3

Even if the person has a desk job and interacts very little with others, you still need to intervene. An employee may be asked to submit to alcohol or drug testing under reasonable suspicion guidelines.4 At times, the employee may be sent home if they are disruptive. You can also refer them to the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Regardless of what approach is taken, it is important to never call the employee an addict or an alcoholic, even if they voluntarily identify as such. It is also important to treat each employee the same way in similar circumstances so the employee will not feel discriminated against.3

The employee should be approached in a way that maintains as much privacy as possible and the meeting with a supervisor should never be public. An intervention with the employee’s supervisor, EAP counselor, and possibly close friends or family can sometimes work to get the person to agree to get help. However, these interventions should always be led by a professional, such as the EAP counselor, and not by the supervisor, which can put the employee on the defensive.3

At times, it may be appropriate to include the employee’s family in the situation. This may be an option if the employee is intoxicated at work and requires a ride home.3

Employee Medical Leave for Treatment

Employees with a substance abuse disorder cannot be discriminated against. Employees seeking medical treatment of any kind, including a substance abuse disorder, can take up to 12 weeks of leave with a doctor’s approval. This leave is known as the Family Medical Leave Act.

In many cases, the employee will have a Return to Work agreement, which typically states that the employee will complete treatment and abide by company rules and policies as a condition of continued employment.

You can fire an employee who does not meet the requirements and expectations of their job. If the employee has received treatment for substance abuse and is performing to expectations, you can be sued for discrimination if you fire the employee for having a substance abuse disorder.5

Treatment Options

Doctor discussing substance abuse treatment options with a patient

Numerous substance abuse treatment options are available. These include:5

  • Inpatient treatment, where the person would stay in a facility 24 hours per day and receive medical oversight.
  • Intensive outpatient treatment, which is usually 2 to 3 hours per session, for 2 to 3 sessions per week. The person gets treatment but can go home at night and also may attend work or school.
  • Outpatient treatment, which can be group or individual, and the person usually gets counseling for 1 hour a week.
  • Residential treatment, which is long-term, ongoing treatment and can last up to a year or more.
  • 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which provide people with ongoing support for recovery and are usually a long-term form of aftercare following treatment.

Most company insurance plans offer coverage for some form of substance abuse treatment.

You can check your insurance through our online form.

To find out more about how AAC can help your loved one get through this challenging time, view our facility offerings and 90 day promise.

Taking Action

Substance abuse in the workplace is a serious issue with many risks if left untreated. These risks include:5

  • Physical danger to the employee, coworkers, and customers.
  • Lost productivity.
  • Economic costs, including more workers’ compensation claims.
  • Higher healthcare costs overall.

It is important to document and report issues rather an ignore a peer or employee struggling with addiction. Following the steps and advice provided in this guide, you can help your peer or employees get the help they need and keep the workplace functioning in smoothly and safely.


  1. Washington Health Professional Services (2016). A guide for assisting colleagues who demonstrate impairment in the workplace, (7).
  2. Yagoda, R. (2016). Addiction in the workplace: tips for employers.
  3. U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Alcoholism in the workplace: a handbook for supervisors.
  4. First Lab (2002). A supervisor’s manual. Guidelines for reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol testing, (8).
  5. National Business Group on Health. (2009). An employer’s guide to workplace substance abuse, (5, 19-23, 32).
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