The Addict in the Workplace

With the opioid epidemic front and center, we take a hard look at the ugly truth

Cortland Mathers-Suter //October 9, 2017//

The Addict in the Workplace

With the opioid epidemic front and center, we take a hard look at the ugly truth

Cortland Mathers-Suter //October 9, 2017//

A recent study from the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that nearly 10 percent of the American population over the age of 12 qualifies as "in need" of substance abuse treatment. This means that one out of every 10 adults in this country is addicted to drugs, alcohol or some combination of the two. Further, in the past decade we’ve seen a spike in opioid use so great that it has been termed a national epidemic; in Colorado, approximate one person died every 36 hours from opioid overdose as of 2015. Addiction does not discriminate by race, class, gender or geography. It is so widespread, it likely affects someone you know. If you own or manage a business, or work in a professional setting, you may start to wonder how to identify whether or not a co-worker has an addiction problem. If you have your suspicions, do you fire that person or help them seek treatment? Is their behavior impacting the bottom line or is their personal wellbeing a greater concern? As a business operator, how do you approach addiction in the workplace?


Many people assume addiction is a problem that affects the poor, but in reality, addicts are often highly functioning professionals who are sitting in the next cubicle, or corner office. According to National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), 70 percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. Drug and alcohol treatment professionals see everything from a meth-addicted bookkeeper, to an OxyContin-smoking computer programmer, to an alcoholic advertising executive. In each case, the addict is very high functioning for a surprisingly long period of time. Occasionally co-workers and family members have suspicions, but more often, highly functioning addicts are able to hide their habit for months or years. 


Drug addiction and alcoholism can emerge at any time in a person’s life, but is often a result of several factors. Long-term stress, childhood trauma and genes are all thought to play roles. Those who are in the midst of their careers can be susceptible to drug addiction or alcoholism due to the potentially stressful and emotionally strenuous circumstances that a fast-paced career produces.


Often co-workers are unaware of their fellow employee’s habit. You may notice your co-worker has occasional erratic behavior such as yelling at a client, falling asleep during the workday, frequent sick days or a slip in productivity. The employee who is not producing at the expected level may actually be suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism and trying to hide it. Often the addict will continue on, appearing to function, until a catastrophic life event finally serves as the catalyst to arrest their addiction. This scenario is the case with the vast majority of professionals with alcoholism. Most of the relatively minor consequences an addict experiences, such as a reprimand from their boss, are not enough for them to completely kick their habit.


Because there are no immediate repercussions, the employee who is an undetected active addict is likely to waste company resources in a variety of ways. He or she is likely to miss valuable opportunities in the workplace while occupied with sustaining a high. Additionally, an addict is likely to have financial issues, so the possibility of theft can be high. Sadly though, an actively addicted employee simply doesn’t live up to his or her professional potential because they cannot focus on the job at hand.


Unfortunately, the complicated nature of alcoholism and drug addiction makes it difficult to diagnose accurately. Often an employer will assume the afflicted person is simply incapable of satisfying their job responsibilities and that employee is let go.

However, there is a relatively new trend in the business community to regard addiction as an illness that requires treatment as opposed to a poor choice from an irresponsible person. More and more, employers are mandating that employees with substance abuse problems receive treatment for their disease. If, as an employer, you notice a sudden decrease in an employee’s productivity or sudden shift in an employee’s mood, you should consider screening that person for drug and or alcohol addiction.

Employers and human resources directors are encouraged to receive training on the topic of drug addiction and alcoholism from organizations such as NCADD. To support employees who may be struggling with any kind of mental health or personal issue, NCADD suggests employers implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  EAP’s often offer confidential counseling and referral assistance, for a variety of problems including drug and alcohol dependency, marital and family issues, financial counseling, and other personal problems that may affect an employee’s ability to work.  Further, NCADD recommends the following policies to assist employees who may be struggling with addiction:

  • Implementing a drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies;
  • Offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders,
  • Mandating aftercare and ongoing counseling for those who have received treatment;
  • Reducing stigma in the workplace;
  • Educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs

By understanding the nature of the disease, employers can help identify a person who may have a problem and suggest professional help. If employers change their thinking and terminology and see addiction as a disease as opposed to a problem, they can support once-valued employees on the road to recovery.

Cortland Mathers-Suter is the managing director of AspenRidge Recovery, an addiction treatment center with locations in Lakewood and Fort Collins. Learn more at