Tag Archives: Addiction in the Workplace

Assessing Employees for Addiction


I was in Cuba for a week and did not update my blog. Cubans keep their cars running for 50-60 years as you can tell by this picture. The guy was using this old car as a taxi.  They are very ingenious people to make do with what they have.  I will talk about my trip sometime later but back to the workplace…………………………….

In 1994, new safety regulations came into effect that govern the North American transportation industry. The main reason for the new rules was safety; too many people were being killed and injured by incidents involving addicts and substance abusers. Ever since the regulations were implemented, it has been my job to undertake addiction assessments on employees who have found themselves contravening company policy. As a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP), I assess the employee then make recommendations based on the addiction assessment to move the employee forward if there are addiction issues.

I have found this work to be very interesting and rewarding. Some of the people I assessed were addicts, and some were not. Some needed help, and some did not. The types of people I have dealt with have ranged from the sensible and cooperative to the loud and hostile. Many of these employees had not previously faced limits regarding their alcohol and drug usage. They either never heard the word “no” or they were able to get their way through manipulation. I have dealt with habitual behaviour that hurts the person and has safety implications for themselves and others.

Generally, the ways to help individuals with addiction are evolving and, hopefully, advancing. Interventions with addicts are becoming a common practice. The intervention is supposed to break through the addict’s defenses so they see themselves as they really are and realize that they do need help. Once they do see this reality, they can accept assistance. The ways that interventions are carried out continue to be modified, but the core dynamic is always the same. Denial is broken so that the addict can make the decision to change. Action comes out of that decision. Addicts in the workplace are no different.

Every recovered person that I have ever seen or made contact with has changed, not because things were going well, but because things were getting bad. Something had to happen that pushed them into making the decision to try to change. In my thirty-two-plus years around the addiction recovery world, I don’t recall ever hearing of somebody who had a serious problem with alcohol or drugs deciding to change for the heck of it. It does not happen that way.

For the working addict, as for all of us, the ability to make an income is very important. (Most addicts are working. Go to http://www.samhsa.gov/workplace/toolkit/assess-workplace for detailed statistics.) Consequently, the workplace, if managed correctly, can have a tremendous influence upon a person with a drinking or drug problem. When companies set firm boundaries around alcohol and drug usage in the workplace, the procedure helps addicted employees see reality and they are given the opportunity to change. They understand what they are doing is too dangerous and they also risk losing their job if they keep it up. I have been amazed to see how effective this environment can be in helping working addicts tackle their addiction.

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Is Addiction a Risk in the Workplace?

Book is finally out

I was talking to a human resource manager a few weeks ago about an employee who worked in his company. This employee was driving a company car and there had been numerous complaints from other employees that this man had alcohol on his breath at various times throughout the day. The HR manager said that the employee was almost ready to admit that he had a problem and that they could finally do something.

I asked, “What if the employee killed a child in a motor vehicle accident before he admitted he needed help and you had prior knowledge of a this serious safety situation?” “I see what you mean,” he said and wanted some advice from me.” I suggested that he should take the employee out of that car immediately until he could get a substance abuse professional (SAP) to assess him for addiction and to see what the SAP recommended. The SAP will either recommend treatment or education depending on the nature and seriousness of the problem. The company will then have a written treatment plan and documentation to promote further action.

The manager was concerned with human rights of the employee. I was concerned for the child or others that could be killed or maimed if nothing was done while people were waiting for this man to get help on his own. My primary concern as a Substance Abuse Professional is the safety of the public and the other employees working with an addicted employee. The employee and his or her rights are secondary to the safety of others. The idea is to address the safety concerns first.

What constitutes reasonable cause to ask an employee to undertake a SAP assessment for addiction. What sort of things should a manager look for while observing or hearing about this employee?

· Alcohol on the breath. (That one is pretty obvious and serious)
· Drunk driving or other charges related to alcohol or drugs.
· There are physiological and physical symptoms one can learn and be attentive to.
· Erratic work performance, especially, from someone who was very good at their job. (Look for changes)
· Absenteeism is especially useful clue that the person has a problem with something.
· Rumours are useful. They can help you to establish a pattern if there are enough of them.
· Unreasonable excuses for being away or not completing tasks on time.
· Moodiness and problems with other employees.
(I have a checklist on my site called Checklist for Managers that lists many subtle clues)

How do you know if it is addiction?  Actually, you really do not know if it is an addiction. You would not know that until the person is professionally assessed. You may suspect but unless you have some sort of specialized knowledge and training you would not be able to diagnose this your self. Besides, you do not want or need all of that personal information that an addiction assessment gains, nor would the employee want to give it to you. That personal information needed for the assessment must stay with a third party for confidentiality reasons. That is another reason to us a SAP.

If you think that something is not right, there is a policy violation or that a person has an alcohol or drug problem, you should be documenting the behaviour. You are trying to build a case that something is wrong and it would be reasonable to assume that it may be addiction. To correct policy violations or improve employee behaviour is one of your functions. That is your job. That is solution-focussed intervention. Whether it is addiction or not you will have to deal with it and take steps to correct it. The SAP interview will move you to a solution. Either the person accepts the help or they do not. Are you going to let someone work with the smell of alcohol or break other company rules without taking action? It is not inhumane to ask people to be responsible for their behaviour, especially, when that behaviour has the potential to harm the employee or others.

In my seminars I hear of some really horrific cases that employees and mangers appear to be putting up with that in my opinion could be solved with some action. My on-site seminar includes a slide that says,” Addicted people do not get help because they see the light but because they feel the heat on their ___. “ In the 32 years that I have been in the addiction business, I have found that to be true especially when the workplace is actively trying to help. Everyone that I have ever personally known or heard about who has recovered from addiction, has done so only when the chips were down never when they were on a roll. Something happened in their life to make them see that there is a problem.

The workplace is uniquely able to influence the employee in such a way as to get them to look at himself or herself long enough to see that there is a problem. The choice is then theirs to do something about it.


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Everyone Must Do Their Share


We can’t rely on one person to carry the weight and responsibility of making the workplace safe. It won’t work. If supervisors do not understand the policy and the need for safety they could easily let someone go on who has the smell of alcohol on them for example. They could believe a dumb excuse that it is aftershave or that it was only two beer the night before. They could refuse to alcohol test this person thinking that it will get better down the road. They could neglect to carry out the un-announced alcohol tests that have been recommended by the SAP.

Getting used to enabling is easy. People like you because you don’t challenge them. They like you because you are a people pleaser. They don’t respect you because they think that you are not worthy of respect because you are not doing your job. They think you are easily manipulated. Go on about your day and ignore the warning signs of addiction problems and pray to God this person does not cause an accident before you retire. I have known people like this. They are not serving anyone but themselves.

Unfortunately “it all comes out in the wash” as my father used to say down the road. Someone is going to be accountable for incompetence and poor supervision if there is an accident and then it becomes not pretty. So much easier just to do your job and let the chips fall as they may and you may be helping someone. One thing you will be keeping your workplace safe and following due diligence procedures.


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Returning a worker to Work after Alcohol or Drug Infraction

20170710_114319One day in a shopping mall I overheard a conversation between two young ladies. One was telling the other that she had just failed her driving test because she did not completely stop at a stop sign. Apparently, the examiner immediately cancelled the rest of the test and told her she had failed because of that one action. She told her friend how shocked and hurt she was as she felt she performed pretty well during the other parts of the driving test. She was furious at the examiner for not passing her. She claimed it was all his fault that she didn’t pass.

I thought about how this story relates to my role in the whole return-to-duty process. The driving examiner was preventing unsafe drivers from getting their license. The young woman thought that since she only went through one stop sign and didn’t hurt anyone, she should be forgiven. She reasoned that lots of people go through stop signs without harm. The difference was she was with an examiner trained to spot mistakes. If she was unable to refrain from going through a stop sign with an examiner in the car, what kind of driver would she be when she was by herself? That is basically how I look at return-to-duty as well. If an employee is not going to make the effort to help themselves while they are out of work and being monitored, why would they make any effort to stay well when they are returned to their job functions?

The answer is that they won’t.

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

Managers have told me that they have to wait for an addicted employee to hit bottom before anything can be done. While it is true that the addict must reach a bottom or place where they do not want to go again, it is not true that you have to wait. You can act now by making boundaries, drawing your own line in the sand, and by having a procedure or process in place to handle the outcome. Whether the addict changes or not, you must change in order to deal with the problem. You eventually find out through the process whether there is a problem and whether the employee will deal with it or not. The beauty of the process is that what you have to do to make the workplace safe is the thing that the addict may need to hit a bottom or a crisis.

Substance dependent individuals recover in different ways. Some stop immediately and never to return to usage. These are the ones that hit a firm bottom, decide they want to change and act on that desire.

On the other hand, I’ve also witnessed a common pattern: a person hits a bottom, but they forget about what caused it, no action is taken and eventually drug use returns. They will either stop before it gets too bad or be lost again. Occasionally I read about individuals I’ve dealt with through their company policy who have died violently or in some other manner related to their addiction. You might as well know what you are dealing with. It is not pretty.

Do you want to go down the tubes with the addicted employee, or give them a firm chance to get and stay clean? If an employee is having addiction affect their work, deal with it now instead of waiting until they get into serious trouble and possibly hurt others in the workplace.

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There is No Magic to Sober Someone Up but ….

There is No Magic to Sober Someone Up


The Magic is in the Process

I don’t have any power over anyone and I can’t sober people up and keep them that way. That is way beyond my capabilities. There can be some magic created when an employee has to face a well- run process that causes them to have to look at themselves. There is the magic. That is my experience and that is what I have seen. We don’t wait for people to “come around” and take on that risk and liability. We act with a process that has boundaries and that makes people accountable for their own actions.

Steve Chandler, a business author, has a book where he discusses the choice between people pleasing others or serving them. Serving them gives them reality and employees acting out sometimes are very unhappy to get a dose of that. People pleasing is what the suffering employee wants because they don’t really want to change. They tell you they want to change and promise this is the last time but they don’t. Baby them, tell them it is all right this time, bend the rules and risk an unsafe workplace and they will be happy with you but that is people pleasing and it could bite you in a bad place down the road. Serving can be unpopular but it is the right and safe thing to do. The employee won’t like it but they may thank you for saving their life when they do straighten up.  Do you serve or people please?


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Success With Addiction in The Workplace

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What Constitutes Success?

The benchmarks of a successful alcohol and drug program should be based on safety, not whether the individual causing the problem changes or not. If it is run correctly, no one gets hurt and the person with problems has the opportunity to get help. That is success right there! If the person takes the help and changes that is a terrific bonus but that is not the ultimate goal.

What do you do with someone who does not want to stop drinking or drugging? You will realize with some education that there is nothing you can do to force them to stop. Gentle pressure can be put on people but the main pressure has to come from the person themselves. They have to get to a place where they know deep down that they are the ones that have to change. They begin to understand that they are responsible for their own problems. They see that no one is coming to save them because they have to save themselves.

Firing the person and then rehiring them without some type of verifiable change is not the answer. That happens and it just teaches an addict that they can get their job back without changing so the next time they drink or use they believe there are no consequences. True and long lasting change must come from within. If the desire for change is not there then that is your answer and you may as well know this sooner than later, they are not ready for change at this time.

People with alcohol and drug problems fail to stop drinking or drugging until they come to the realization that their usage will cause them problems. That is just the way it is. For an addict to recover many factors have to come into play and sometimes it is just is not the right time for them to see their part. They are not ready to stop yet and they may never stop. Do you do wait forever until they decide to stop and allow them to become a safety risk and liability for your company?  The whole is more important than the parts. There is a balance between safety and human rights.

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What is treatment?




Knowing an effective procedure to deal with substance abuse affecting the workplace is enough for a manager to be expected to know without having to understand the various types of treatment. Unless you work in this field it can be confusing.  Programs change quite a bit as well and are different everywhere you go. It would be helpful for managers and supervisors to be aware of the general categories of categories of help but to find out and understand all of the treatment options is too much to ask and it is not necessary. What is necessary is that the workplace be kept safe and secondly that the worker gets offered appropriate help if needed.  Leave the treatment choices between the employee and the SAP who assesses them.

Some companies have sent their employees away on expensive in-patient programs but the employee comes back and continues to get into trouble. The manager may tell me that they have already have had treatment so therefore it is not necessary. Firstly, I may tell the manager in a nice way that it is not working very well if the employee is still getting into trouble. I may also ask who recommended the help, how did they know it was the right choice, was there follow up and did the employee accept the continuing recommendations from the treatment center? There is more to treatment than being locked up for a month or two. That type of treatment is just a small part if it is necessary at all. What is important is what the employee does with the treatment afterwards. For that monitoring is required.

There are several categories of addiction treatment to be aware of if you are dealing with an employee that needs help. In-patient, out-patient, detoxification, aftercare and groups (both professional and mutual-help) are the general categories.


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Addiction and Safety


When I was first asked to participate in this SAP process in 1994 I was asked to do allot of reading to understand the new way of addressing addiction in the workplace.  I became very excited at the potential after starting to understand that this simple process had the power to change people’s lives. It was different from any type of counselling or treatment that I had been involved in before.

I was amazed what changes took place! Very rarely did the employee refuse to meet. They all wanted their jobs. The procedure helped them see reality so that they could decide if they wanted to change. That is the pre-step in recovery circles, the gradual opening of the mind to the realization of what they are doing is not working, especially in the workplace. Their career was where their problem was being noticed. The employer was setting boundaries that the employee could understand. To me this was a huge advancement in safety and in the way we treat substance abuse which affects the workplace.

An exchange of information with other professionals was needed on certain employees that I had assessed. I experienced many problems in trying to get others to understand either by their ignorance on addiction or their personal stubbornness and desire to leave things as they were. Difficulties appeared because the professionals did not understand and were trying to protect their client or in some cases they were purposely being resistant. They were looking at it from their client’s rights and not the rights of the company or other workers around the employee. It appeared that taking responsibility for safety in the workplace was a totally new way of taking action on addition issues. Unfortunately, these counsellors got an awakening when the company kept the employee out of work until a successful outcome was attained. Then the employee became cooperative. Action is hard in the beginning but with momentum it is easier. Once employees got moving on recovery activities they were on board with it too.

This idea of looking at addiction as a safety issue did make people think past what the addict wanted. They could eventually see what the company’s point- the possible effects on those around the problem employee and the potential for tragedy. Once other professionals understood that the process revolved around safety and also was a completely ethical way of doing things, doctors and treatment providers went along with it for the most part. I still face some opposition from some in the field who feel that the most important thing is to act as an advocate for their clients. Safety comes first, however, not what the employee wants or had been used to. It also helped some addicts come down a notch and see their rightful place in a company being one of the many only. They could not talk themselves back to work anymore with lame excuses. They needed the assessment and the issue came out there. In working with anyone addicted to alcohol or drugs accountability is important for personal change.

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Returning to Work after Working on Recovery, The Road Back

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When it is determined that someone does have a problem and they need help then question I love to hear is “what do I have to do to get better?” The question I get most often is “when I am going back to work?” The answer to the second question is in the first question. When the employee does what is necessary for recovery then the risk is minimized. With good action and some alcohol or drug testing the process is set up for the employee to return to work.

Company boundaries dictate to the employee that they are required to change prior to returning to work can be hard for the employee to accept. The employee may balk at this suggestion. This is why everyone involved must be educated and understand that the process of being out of work to get recovery is for the individual’s own good as well as the safety and due diligence of the company.

I have seen situations where the employee starts complaining to anyone who will listen and manages to get supervisors or union representatives worked up trying to speed things up. You may be dealing with someone that is used to getting what they want by whining and complaining. They reason that people whine and complain is that it has worked in the past.

The two greatest positive signs that I can see in an employee who is working on themselves is action and attitude. They are doing something to help themselves and they also are feeling better about the changes. When employees are grateful for the chance to change I believe that they are on the right track. Gratitude and action together shows me that they are moving ahead.  This does not happen overnight so the employer has to have strong boundaries about returning to work until certain actions are fulfilled.

A lifetime of thinking one way does not change in a short time but sometimes personal transformations are amazing.  I knew a man personally who 31 years ago turned from one of the most cranky resentful, hateful people into one of the most spiritual and happy people I know now. He drank daily for 20 years prior to his change. He now works hard to help others even at 84 years old. Change like this happens but usually not that quickly or dramatically.

On the other hand, it seems like some employees act like they are waiting for some outside force to change them without any effort on their part.  Their inaction shows me that they are not motivated to change and don’t really want to put any effort into the process. I have to conclude that it has not become bad enough for them to want to stop. They don’t understand that they need help. Needing and wanting are two different things.

People are people and what they say they are going to do they don’t always do. Some people are moved to change when the pressure is on but after that their effort dwindles. What is said today is not necessarily done tomorrow and people change their mind.  I have found that the process in assessing people returning to work cannot be a dogmatic and inflexible procedure based on power. That is not helpful to anyone. Many situations can develop when a person is asked to take the initiative to get help and sometimes we just have to give some solid direction and wait to see what happens. I have had some interesting cases over the years for sure.

What I look for are characteristics and behavior in the employee that shows or starts to show that good change is taking place. My question that I ask myself is this: “Does this person have a reasonable chance of not using drugs or alcohol when they return to work?” The idea here is “reasonable. The process must be fluid while taking into account what the employee does. Are they moving away from drug usage or back to it?

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