13 Ways to Spot Substance Abuse in the Workplace

May 6, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has formally defined addiction as: “A chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”

According to Medical Daily, the people who work for you who are most likely to become addicted and cause problems for your business are:

  • Young Caucasian men
  • Children of drug abusers
  • Persons with clinical depression and bipolar disorder
  • Persons with higher IQs
  • Persons with anger management issues

And did you know that certain job categories have a much higher risk of substance abuse than others? This could have a definite impact on your organization. Futures of Palm Beach, a treatment facility for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, has categorized specific profiles of addiction by profession. Medical personnel, lawyers, and law enforcement personnel are at higher risk than accountants and tech support. But no one group, or person, is immune from the ravages of addictive behavior.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that U.S. companies lose several billion dollars each year because of alcohol and drug use problems of employees and the related problems that go with such behavior. According to the NCAAD, these are the main warning signs and behaviors to look for:

The eyes

Look for bloodshot eyes or pupils that are larger or smaller than normal.

The nose

Frequent nose bleed may indicate cocaine or methamphetamine use.

Weight and appetite

A noticeable increase or decrease in appetite and/or weight.


If the person does not have a history of epilepsy.

Personal grooming

Letting hair and clothing get disorganized and sloppy.

Suspicious injuries

Bruises, cuts and injuries that the person is not willing to talk about.


Unusual and/or offensive odors from breath, body or clothes.

Speech and coordination

Slurred speech and unsteady balance.

Performance issues

Employee displays decreased lack of interest in their job and no longer looks for ways to improve their performance. They can become very defensive about any perceived criticism.


Co-workers, supervisors, and customers complain that the employee is not holding up their end of the work, and seems rude and distant with customers.


Employee complains constantly of financial problems and attempts to borrow from co-workers or asks for an advance on their salary.


Taking longer and more frequent breaks than fellow workers. These breaks are unexplained and take the employee out of the office/building/factory.


Sudden mood swings, from irritability or rage to meaningless laughter.

If, after observing some of the above symptoms of drug abuse, you believe that one of your employees may be suffering from an addiction to substances, you should document every instance of the behavior, especially how it relates to work performance. After documenting these instances, seek professional advice from an HR representative or an attorney. These professionals will be able to advise you on the next step to take regarding an employee who is abusing drugs. It is also help to bring your concerns to a medical professional who will be able to confirm your suspicions of drug abuse.

After documenting and speaking with professionals, approach your employee or colleague with an attitude of wanting to help. If you come to them accusing drug abuse and threaten the employee with discipline or termination, you are not likely to get anywhere. You can try to help the employee seek treatment for their addiction, but you may be unsuccessful in your endeavors. An employee’s drug abuse can be a liability for your company, and after unsuccessful attempts to get help for the employee, termination may be the only viable option.