For businesses, impaired workers pose a significant risk to themselves, others, and the company.
Here's what you need to know about how you can handle employees working while impaired — whether remotely or on-site:
- In addition to financial losses, businesses with workers who are impaired on the job risk injuries to the staff member and their coworkers.
- When workers struggle with alcohol, illicit, or legal drug addiction, their personal and professional lives are impacted.
- Ignoring an impaired employee at work won’t make the problem improve or go away.
One of the benefits of the recent pandemic was the (sometimes involuntary) opportunity for employees to work remotely. Primarily working from home, many found the convenience, lack of commute, and ability to better balance work and personal life a positive outcome. For most, the balance was challenging but manageable. For some, the stress became too difficult. They may have turned to alcohol, prescription medications, or illegal drugs to help manage the pressure. For businesses, impaired workers pose a significant risk to themselves, others, and the company.
For some, there was a downside along with the good. They may have found remote work more difficult than on-site employment due to:
- The stress of isolation
- Professional and personal anxiety
- Juggling family responsibilities
Employees who work on-site may be easily identified as working while impaired. For remote staff, it may be more challenging to recognize.
How prevalent is working while impaired among remote staff?
During the outbreak, many turned to alcohol or drugs to relieve stress. Using more while in isolation sometimes morphed into using while on the job. A survey of 1,300 workers reported by a treatment provider showed as many as 90% of workers admitted to drinking while on the job.
Some staff members clocked out early to drink; others stayed on the clock but didn’t work while they were drinking. Some admitted they worked throughout their shift, even though they were using alcohol at the time.
A Colorado State Employee Assistance Program report found 9 million Americans use alcohol at some point during their workday.
Many businesses are noticing staff may be under the influence while at work. A Colorado State Employee Assistance Program report found 9 million Americans use alcohol at some point during their workday. Because they are self-reported, these numbers may only scratch the surface of the amount of drug and alcohol use by remote workers.
What is the cost to businesses when workers are impaired?
Data suggests workers who use alcohol or drugs while on the job cost American companies about $25 billion per year. Overall there is a 33% reduction in:
- Medical costs
Healthcare costs alone for workers with addiction are twice those for their non-addicted colleagues.
In addition to financial losses, businesses with workers who are impaired on the job risk injuries to the staff member and their coworkers. For remote workers, the risk of hurting others is eliminated. Still, staff members can do irreparable harm to the business if, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they interact:
- With colleagues
- On the web or social media sites
- With customers
The challenge for leadership is recognizing the signs of an impaired worker and dealing with the issue immediately.
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How do you know a remote worker is impaired on the job?
It may be more challenging to recognize when a remote worker is under the influence while they’re on the clock. Look for signs their work and relationships are deteriorating or are sub-standard. Some indicators may be:
- Work product is degrading or inconsistent
- Work is not completed/misses deadlines
- Uses emails or texts more than direct phone calls
- Avoids or misses virtual meetings
- Video feed in virtual meetings isn’t turned on
- Slurred speech
- Disheveled or unkempt appearance in virtual meetings
- Isolating from coworkers
- Avoiding or worsening relationships with colleagues
- Non-responsive to managers or coworkers
- Inappropriate/incoherent messages or emails
Supervisors who suspect one of their remote workers may be working while impaired should check in more frequently. There may be a pattern:
- Afternoons may be when the worker is imbibing, either at or after lunch.
- There may be days of the week, like Mondays or Fridays, when performance is diminished.
- The staff member may be unavailable to be contacted or doesn’t respond to messages at certain times of the day.
These warning signs could also mean the worker is under the influence while on the clock.
What to do when you believe a remote worker is under the influence
Ignoring the problem won’t make it improve or go away. Managers should be trained to handle the situation immediately. Businesses should advise all staff to report colleagues, even anonymously, if they suspect they’re working while impaired.
Business relies on capable staff. If even one worker is underperforming or causing disruptions, there could be a ripple effect on others. Managing the situation as quickly as it’s identified is critical to addressing the problem and getting the staff member any help they may need.
If the worker is visibly under the influence during remote meetings, record their interactions with you or the team. Substandard work, emails, or messages that similarly illustrate some type of problem should also be collected. Be prepared to discuss these with the employee.
How to handle a remote worker who is impaired on the job
Set a meeting with the employee as soon as possible to discuss the situation. If available, have any collected evidence that supports your belief they are working under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Let them know you’ll be recording the video or phone meeting, if necessary, for the employee’s personnel file.
Discuss the company’s drug and alcohol-free workplace policy and let the staff member know you believe they are working while impaired. Provide them with any details or evidence you have to support your belief.
If the employee was on-site, you could require a drug or alcohol test. With remote workers, that may be challenging. You may find a testing site in their area and require the employee to submit to testing as soon as possible as a condition of continued employment.
If the employee denies the accusation, you have several options. If the evidence is strong, you may move forward with disciplinary action, including termination of employment, for significant infractions.
For lesser infractions, you may require the employee to submit to disciplinary action and/or be available for daily, random check-ins from their supervisor. Make sure to follow up routinely if you’re using this choice to ensure they’re not impaired during the workday. You may need to continue these check-ins for weeks or months to ensure the behavior has been corrected.
Another option may be to require that whatever work-related issues you believe are tied to the problem improve immediately, or disciplinary action will follow. Follow up consistently to ensure any issues with work product or relationships with others have been resolved.
Protecting employee rights
Staff members may admit they have a problem and seek assistance. Employees who have an addiction do have protections under the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows staff members to ask for an accommodation when they seek drug or alcohol rehabilitation. They may be eligible for FMLA leave, as well, to address the problem. Be prepared to discuss options for leave and/or accommodation options if they are willing to seek help.
Employees who have an addiction do have protections under the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows staff members to ask for an accommodation when they seek drug or alcohol rehabilitation.
Some workers may be impaired because of prescription medicines. If so, ask them to speak to their physician to adjust the prescription or the time of day it’s taken. If that’s not possible, you’re within your rights to move them to light duty or part-time hours if necessary. Have them discuss options with their doctor for a release to light or part-time duty as soon as possible. In the interim, if the impairment is significant, suggest they request a leave of absence under the ADA or FMLA.
If the worker is covered under your healthcare or wellness program plans, and they and you want to continue their employment, require they speak to a counselor and get a referral for treatment immediately. You may put them on leave until they do so. Particularly if their behavior has been significantly disruptive. Again, provide information on ADA or FMLA leave of absence if appropriate before or during treatment.
If the employee is not covered under a company health or wellness plan, there are still resources available for them to get help. The US Department of Health and Human Service’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a 24/7 helpline. Workers contact them directly to get referrals to free services in their area to help. Again, a leave of absence may be necessary and legally required to protect the employee’s rights.
Your business can have a role in your employee’s addiction recovery
When workers struggle with alcohol, illicit, or legal drug addiction, their personal and professional lives are impacted. If possible, support the worker and help them resolve the issue.
Should the problem prove to be too severe, or the worker refuses to change or get help, you may, unfortunately, have no alternative but to sever your working relationship. If the employee is worth saving, your intervention might be the key to getting their professional and personal life back on track.