How do you encourage/help a substance abusing employee to turn over a new leaf?

May 19, 2022

You wear many hats as an employer – boss, coach, cheerleader, and often, confidante. But what happens when one of your employees has a substance abuse issue? While you may not be a trained counselor, there are a number of things you can do to encourage your employee to seek help. Continue reading to find out what seasoned employers suggested are the best ways to approach your struggling worker.

Edith Matos

Edith Matos

Edith Matos, Hotline Director for Drug Helpline.

Provide Clear Substance Abuse Policies, Resources and a Supportive Environment

There are many things employers can do to encourage and help a substance-abusing employee turn over a new leaf. One important step is to create and enforce a clear substance abuse policy. This means making it clear that any substance abuse will not be tolerated in the workplace and making sure that the employee understands the consequences of their actions. In addition to this, employers can help them develop a plan for quitting substance abuse. This plan should include goals, strategies, and deadlines.

Employers should also provide employees with resources for seeking help with addiction. This may include referrals to treatment centers or counseling services, as well as information about employee assistance programs (EAPs) that offer counseling and other support services. During this period, it’s also important to offer positive reinforcement when the employee makes progress.

Lastly, create a supportive environment for them. This means providing them with the resources they need to succeed, such as flexible work hours or a private space to work in. You should also avoid criticizing them or judging them, and offer encouragement instead to help them stay on track.

4 Ways to Help a Substance-Abusing Employee

1) Encourage them to seek professional treatment
As a business leader, you’re not equipped to treat psychological issues like substance abuse, but you can help employees to get the help they need. Depending on the extent of the addiction, this could include time spent in a rehabilitation facility. In other cases, a therapist who specializes in substance abuse or a 12-step program may be the better option.

These treatments may be covered by your employee health benefits, so work with the employee and HR to determine if that’s the case. Do what you can as the leader to make it easy for them to seek treatment. Ways to do this could include additional PTO to cover their full rehabilitation stay, or adjusting scheduling and hours so they can attend meetings or therapy sessions.

2) Have a one-on-one to determine workplace-related triggers and how to minimize them
This is normally best done after they’ve spent a bit of time working with a therapist or treatment program and have more tools to identify the roots of their addiction. Substance abuse is particularly common among those who work extended hours and are in fast-paced, stressful jobs.

In those cases, temporarily reducing the employee’s workload, or assigning them to less time-sensitive projects, could be beneficial during their recovery. Substance abuse has also been on the rise among remote workers, so it may benefit them to return to the office if they have been working from home.

3) Keep all employee information strictly confidential
Many who are struggling with substance abuse avoid seeking treatment because of the shame, guilt, and other negative emotions and stigmas associated with addiction. It will only make things worse if the employee’s substance abuse becomes a topic of office conversation. Keep all your conversations about substance abuse private and confidential.

At the same time, be mindful of any speculation or gossip that’s already happening among their coworkers, and take quick action to shut down the rumor mill. Embarrassment over past substance use can derail the employee’s recovery and create an uncomfortable work environment for them, so you want to do what you can as a leader to prevent this kind of gossip from spreading.

4) Set firm boundaries and expectations moving forward
As a leader, you need to look out for both the health of the struggling employee and the overall productivity and morale of your team. The behavior changes that often result from substance abuse can be disruptive to the team, so while you want to be sympathetic to the employee’s struggles, you also need to limit that disruption. Be clear about what workplace behavior you expect from the employee moving forward, as well as what consequences will result if those expectations aren’t met.

Jon Hill

Jon Hill

Jon Hill, Chairman & CEO of The Energists.
Christiaan Huynen

Christiaan Huynen

Christiaan Huynen, CEO & Founder of DesignBro.

Include More Mental Health Benefits, Encourage Mental Health Check-Ups

Before the pandemic, our company had already offered medical benefits to our employees, but its coverage is limited to diagnostic imaging and hospitalizations. When COVID-19 started, mental health issues also surfaced and we realized that aside from physical health, mental health is also of equal importance.

Thus, we expanded our health benefits package which now includes free visits to mental health professionals and discounts on their respective medications. We aim to eradicate the negative notions tied to mental health checkups among our employees.

Quality over Quantity of Work

When it comes to substance-abusing employees, the best thing you can do is try not to focus so much on how much they’re working but rather on how well they’re doing their job. If you can provide constructive feedback and guidance about how to improve their daily tasks without getting too bogged down in details that may or may not be accurate, then that will go a long way toward helping them turn things around. Teach them to take breaks now and again, encourage them if they meet goals you set for them together, etc.

You know your company better than anyone else so think about what would be the most effective way to help your worker turn things around.

Gergo Vari

Gergo Vari

Gergo Vari, CEO of Lensa.
Brian Snedvig

Brian Snedvig

Brian Snedvig, CEO and founder of Jofibo.

Be Consistent with Your Expectations

Especially when it comes to substance-abusing workers, being consistent is key to helping them stay on track and become dependable employees once again. The more stable their life becomes, the less likely they are to want or need to use substances as a way of coping with stress or depression that may have led to their substance abuse in the first place. If you can be consistent with how you treat them – showing empathy but not letting it influence how you expect them to do their job – then they will feel empowered to keep doing better at work.

The more productive they are there, the more confident they’ll become in themselves which will lead to them being confident enough to seek outside help for their substance abuse.

Note the Signs, Address the Problem Honestly and Privately

Having a substance-abusing employee can be tricky and troublesome, depending on the situation. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to proper handling, especially if you’re the employer.

Here are some examples:

Take note of the tell-tale signs
An employee with a substance abuse problem is easy to spot. One sign would be habitual absenteeism, failure to meet deliverable deadlines, and inconsistent performance. If you see all three, take action immediately.

Have an honest but private conversation
On the topic of taking action, you should discuss these matters in private. The entire team or office does not need to know the problem at hand, and the employee will have an easier time opening up. But keep the conversation honest and encourage them to speak out. Be more of a listener than a boss who is out there to dole out punishment.

Talk to the people around them
If the second step isn’t working, then it’s time to take it up a notch. Get in touch with the people around them, whether it be colleagues or family, and let them know about the severity of the situation. You may need to conduct an intervention or seek professional assistance.

Jack Miller

Jack Miller

Jack Miller is the founder of How I Get Rid Of.

This is a crowdsourced article. Contributors' statements do not necessarily reflect the opinion of this website, other people, businesses, or other contributors.