Drugs and Alcohol for Employees

How to deal with a colleague who is dealing with drugs and alcohol

If you notice that a colleague’s use of drugs or alcohol is affecting them and their fellow co-workers, they may be experiencing a substance use problem. Any significant change in the person’s mood or attitude, either about work or home life, can be a sign of a problematic substance use. Other signs include:

  • Increased rates of absenteeism or taking long breaks from the workplace
  • A disheveled appearance
  • General uncooperativeness
  • Frequent argumentativeness or conflict with co-workers or clients, and
  • Being easily angered.

Your colleague may also begin to demonstrate an attitude of carelessness about their responsibilities, others in the workplace, and the quality of their work. This person, however, may not even be aware that their substance use is affecting those around them. Approaching a colleague in the workplace about a drug or alcohol problem can be difficult for anyone. However, the sooner the problem is addressed, the sooner help can be found for them.

You may wish to have a quiet and tactful talk with your colleague, with the aim of being collaborative rather than confrontational – if your colleague denies having a problem with substance use, they may quickly become defensive. Ask the person about their drug or alcohol use rather than make assumptions about their use. State to concerns to your colleague, but be sure to come from a place of empathy and caring.

A great way to do this is letting them know that you’re concerned about their well-being. Tell your colleague that you are genuinely concerned about them but make sure not to be judgmental or accusatory. You have to adopt a caring and civil approach, so instead of saying “I think you drink too much”, perhaps say “I smelled alcohol on your breath this morning. Have you been drinking?” If your colleague looks to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol whilst at work, you may need to inform your workplace leader for safety reasons.

If the person does not want to reduce or stop their drug or alcohol use, realise that you cannot make them change. Do not feel guilty or responsible for their decision to keep drinking or using drugs. It is important that you maintain a good relationship with your colleague, as you may be able to have a positive effect on their substance use in the future. Let the person know you are available to talk at any time.

How to support a colleague who is dealing with drugs and/or alcohol

When a colleague shows signs of problematic drug or alcohol use, or discusses their substance use problems with you, it can be difficult to know what to do or say. Nonetheless, if your colleague’s substance use is affecting their health or impacting on their or even your work performance, it’s important that you try to help. In fact, this may be the time your colleague needs you most. Reaching out to a colleague shows care and concern, and opens a dialogue to check how they are doing. Your role is not to deal with or treat their substance use problem or contributing factors, but rather to support your colleague when they need it.

One way to go about supporting your colleague is by expressing your concern in an honest and caring way. Be sure to use “I” phrases such as “I’m worried.” This way, your colleague can be sure of your true feelings. Explain to your colleague that you are concerned about them. Be careful not to blame or criticise your colleague for their behaviours. Remember that substance-use disorders are health-related conditions that often cause individuals to act in ways not normal for them. Express that you have noticed a change in their behaviour and make explicit your concern for their safety and wellbeing.

Urge the person to get help, do some research, and offer information about where they can seek assistance. Let your colleague know that you will listen without judging them. It’s fine to be uncertain about how to respond. You don’t need to have all the answers. Being there to support your colleagues is often the most valuable thing that you can do.

How to personally ask for help in dealing with drugs and/or alcohol 

Through clinical and scientific advances and research, we now know a vast amount about how drugs and alcohol work in the brain. Repeated use of drugs and alcohol results in cognitive changes, including to parts of the brain that enable you to exert self-control. These and other changes can be seen clearly in brain imaging studies of people with substance use issues. These advancements in imaging and other clinical research have also led to specialised treatment options.

Asking for help for your drug or alcohol use is your first step towards recovery and does put you in a vulnerable position. However, it’s important to recognise that you should not be embarrassed about needing help. It takes a lot of courage to seek help. When you are ready to ask for help, take action by selecting the person you think will be most likely to be willing and ready to support you in your decision to get treatment. For many people, this person is a close family member or friend. The most important thing about asking for help is that it is never too late. No matter what has happened in your life or in your relationships, there is still hope.

Treatment can work, and people recover every day. Like other chronic diseases, your problematic substance use can be successfully managed. Treatment enables people to counteract the substance’s powerful, disruptive effects on the brain and behaviour and regain control of their lives and their careers. If you think you might need help with your drug or alcohol use, seek the advice of General Practitioner (GP) or practitioner who specialised in substance-use disorders (addiction medicine specialist). You can locate help in your area by accessing the Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN) website: http://www.adin.com.au/help-support-services .

It can be difficult for you, as an employee, to reach out and ask for help at work. Sometimes, this difficulty is a result of a perceived lack of support from employers or a sense of shame you might feel about your substance use problems. Rest assured that workplaces, under the Privacy Act and Work Health & Safety legislation, have a responsibility to ensure your privacy. They also have an obligation to help if the health effects from your drug or alcohol use are adversely affecting your performance at work.

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