Working While Impaired: Are Employees Putting Your Company at Risk?

To minimize risk, business leaders must be alert to the warning signs of an impaired worker and be ready to respond immediately.

Bookmark(0)

No account yet? Register

Working While Impaired: Are Employees Putting Your Company at Risk?

Here's what you need to know about working while impaired: are employees putting your company at risk? :

  • Managers or colleagues must speak up immediately when they recognize an employee is impaired.
  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers with addiction have the right to submit to a recovery program with some level of job protection.
  • For employees without healthcare coverage, government assistance is available.

There has always been a small percentage of employees who work while impaired. Some have an alcohol use disorder (AUD); others have a substance use disorder, either with prescribed or illegal drugs (SUD).

As new state and local laws allow for recreational and medical cannabis use, a new crop of employees may be working while under the influence of marijuana. For business, impaired workers have always posed a risk to:

  • Themselves
  • Their colleagues
  • Customers
  • The organization as a whole

The isolation and stress brought on by the pandemic saw an increase in American alcohol consumption. Data shows an increase of 41% of women and 14% of men increased the number of ‘heavy drinking days’ per month due to COVID. For many of these workers, the end of lockdowns and return to on-site work has not meant the end of turning to alcohol to relieve their stress. For some, returning to work may increase their anxiety.

To minimize risk, business leaders must be alert to the warning signs of an impaired worker and be ready to respond immediately.

Are employees impaired on the job?

Even before the worst of the pandemic, Americans were working while impaired.

A 2020 survey conducted by Zippia polled over 2,000 workers. Overall, more than one-third admitted to drinking on the job. The results range widely by state:

  • A high of 67% of Alaskans responded affirmatively
  • Nebraska workers came in the lowest at 13%
  • In the best possible scenario, there’s a good chance more than 10% of your staff are imbibing while on the clock

When it comes to drug use, surveys compiled by Teamstage found:

  • More than 28% of workers admit they use drugs on the way to work
  • About 10% use drugs in the morning or afternoon
  • Almost 23% say they use them during lunch break
  • More than 18% say they use drugs at any time during the workday

The fallout of the pandemic likely increased these numbers for drug and cannabis use while working. The percentage of workers who admit to using while on the job is daunting. The possibility that more do so without self-reporting is even worse. For businesses, impaired workers pose an imminent risk.

What does impairment cost business?

Workers with AUD miss approximately 32 work days per year—more than double their non-AUD counterparts. Additionally, businesses spend up to $68 billion annually on AUD staff members. These costs include:

  • Health complications
  • Injuries
  • Absenteeism
  • Lost productivity

About 1 in 5 workers say they were put in danger on the job or had to redo a project due to a colleague’s drinking.

These numbers are staggering in industries where safety on the job is critical. The results could be life-threatening for companies that use heavy or dangerous equipment. For drivers, the fallout could reach beyond the workplace into the community. Even in businesses where employees are desk-bound and relatively safe from physical harm, slips and falls could pose a risk to workers and colleagues. When you add the cost of low performance and productivity, the overall cost to business is significant.

Recognizing employees who may be impaired

Staff and leadership need training to recognize when employees are impaired on the job. For workers who are visibly drunk or high, the answer is clear. Still, many employees are able to mask their use disorder on the job.

Look for signs they may have an issue:

  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination or unsteady gait
  • Smell of alcohol or drugs
  • Bloodshot or glassy-looking eyes
  • Frequent use of mouthwash or breath mints
  • Nausea or paleness
  • Personality changes — more aggressive or withdrawn
  • Diminished work quality
  • Inability to complete assignments
  • Excessive absenteeism or tardiness
  • Avoids coworkers and supervisors

Training is key to addressing the situation as it occurs, hopefully before an incident or injury occurs.

Managers or colleagues must speak up immediately when they recognize an employee is impaired. Training is key to addressing the situation as it occurs, hopefully before an incident or injury occurs. Let staff members know they can report a colleague they suspect is impaired confidentially. Train managers to assess and address any worker in their team immediately.

Identifying what type of problem you are dealing with

Consider whether the problem is a one-off or a pattern of behavior. Occasionally, an employee returns from lunch after having one too many. You’re well within your rights to call a ride-share to take them home or have them sleep it off on an office couch.

An increasing pattern of behaviors may make you suspect they have an alcohol or substance use disorder. The employee’s work, relationships with others, and attitude may worsen over time. You may need to intervene to determine what’s happening and how you should respond.

If front-line supervisors aren’t comfortable addressing the issue with the employee, ask them to request assistance from HR or someone in senior leadership. Don’t ignore the problem—it will not go away on its own and may become increasingly worse if not dealt with.

Make sure you have an impaired worker policy in place

Every company should have a policy prohibiting employees from working while impaired. Whether they’re using legal or illicit substances or prescribed medications, the workplace is no place for employees under the influence.

Your policy should clearly state that employees taking prescription drugs for a medical condition that may impact their judgment, mental or physical safety must have a doctor’s release for full duty. If they cannot get a full release, you may want to reassign them to a position where they are less likely to harm themselves or others. If no such job exists, a leave of absence or another accommodation may be necessary.

For employees who use cannabis products recreationally, you’re within your rights to prohibit use in the workplace. However, if an employee must use cannabis during working hours for medical purposes, your policy should require their physician to provide a release to full duty. Without a medical clearance, you may need to reassign the employee to light duty or suggest a leave of absence.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

When you suspect an employee is impaired

If you see an employee impaired on the job, immediately stop them from continuing to work. Remove them from any coworkers or hazards while you determine your next steps.

If the situation warrants, you may require the employee to undergo drug or alcohol testing. Many companies reserve this option for incidences where the employee has posed an immediate risk to themselves, others, or property. If your policy allows, you may consider disciplinary action, including discharge, even for a first offense depending on the severity of the incident.

If the staff member isn’t posing an immediate risk, you’ll want to discuss your suspicions and an action plan moving forward. Sometimes, you may not be able to have an immediate conversation. If possible, they may need to be taken or sent home (in a ride-share) with instructions to meet with you before reporting for their next shift.

Discussing impairment on the job

Any discussion with an employee about alcohol or substance use disorders must be private and with the employee’s rights in mind. Talk to the staff member about your suspicions and be prepared for several outcomes:

The impaired worker may deny there’s a problem

They may insist the incident(s) in which you thought they were impaired were the result of something else—lack of sleep or illness. If you’re outlining a pattern of repeated behavior, they may have more difficulty forming an excuse. Even so, they still may insist they do not have an AUD or SUD.

You may have to take their word for it

If an immediate drug or alcohol test wasn’t required, you might have little recourse but to accept the staff members’ explanation(s). Having done so, however, doesn’t mean you’ll need to tolerate the behavior in the future. Let the staff member know that repeated offenses will result in disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.

Let the employee know they should stay home if they’re sick or overtired to minimize risk to themselves or others. If there is a medical issue, they should seek their doctor’s help to resolve it. Whatever the reason, notify the employee there can be no future incidents.

They may admit there’s a problem

If the employee notifies you that they have an AUD or SUD, suggest they seek medical or interventional care immediately. They may have been hesitant to use healthcare or wellness programs for assistance for fear of losing their job.

Let them know you’re willing to work with them to resolve the issue and that they have legal rights if they get assistance. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers with addiction have the right to submit to a recovery program with some level of job protection. Even staff members who engage in illicit drug use may have some protection under the law.

Let the employee know you’re willing to allow them a chance to resolve the issue with interventional or medical help.

While employees are protected during their recovery, if they begin using alcohol or drugs on the job after completing a program, their rights may be voided. Let the employee know you’re willing to allow them a chance to resolve the issue with interventional or medical help.

Talk about options

If they are covered under a health benefit plan or have access to wellness programs, suggest they start there. If they do not have access through a company plan, they may be eligible through their own ACA coverage.

For employees without healthcare coverage, government assistance is available. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can refer Americans who need help to free resources. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a 24/7 helpline. Workers can get referrals to free services in the area to help with their disorder.

Let the staff member know their job depends on their actions in the future. No more incidents must occur whether or not they choose to go into a program. Be clear that their continued employment is dependent on never being impaired on the job in the future.

Be an ally

Personal and professional stress can take its toll on workers. Some employees adapt to change; others struggle to find their way. Whether the pandemic exacerbated an existing problem or created a new one, business leaders need to be an ally for employees with use disorders.

Your first priority is to protect your business from risk and harm. If the employee is worth saving, work with them to find a path to recovery, if possible. If you can, help the staff member protect their health and their personal and professional lives, as well.

Bookmark(0)

No account yet? Register

Might also interest you