HR’s Vital Role in Managing Employee Substance Use Disorders

Beth Edinger
Beth Edinger
April 10, 2019

Substance use can negatively affect employers through issues such as lost productivity, absenteeism, workplace accidents and injuries, theft, low employee morale and increased illness and health care expenses.  HR professionals have important roles to play in managing employees with substance abuse problems, including developing substance abuse policies, training managers to recognize signs of substance abuse, guiding employees who exhibit such signs to obtain help and taking action when workplace policies are violated.

Assisting employees with substance use disorders and encouraging and supporting treatment can positively impact employers as savings can be realized from increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and decreased health care claims.


Employers must be cautious

though when confronting an employee about suspected drug or alcohol addiction.  There may be legitimate reasons for the symptoms, such as bloodshot eyes due to allergies or absenteeism due to a legitimate health reason.

  • Employers may inform an employee that they have noticed particular behaviors and ask for an explanation.
  • Addressing performance or conduct issues can open the door for the employee to admit there is a problem.
  • If the employee denies any issues, the employer should proceed with normal actions to address an employee who is underperforming or displaying inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

The establishment of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be very beneficial to an employer.  EAPs deal with all kinds of problems and provide short-term counseling, assessment and referral of employees with alcohol and drug abuse problems, emotional and mental health problems, marital and family problems, financial problems and other personal issues that can affect the employee’s work.  An EAP Counselor can assist the employee with identifying if he/she needs treatment.

Entering a treatment program is an incredibly difficult and emotional decision for many reasons.  Employees may experience fear of shame and failure, worry about how treatment will affect loved ones and concern for how treatment may impact his/her career.


Once an employee announces that he or she is seeking treatment,

employers need to understand their legal obligations.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines what qualifies as a disability to include individuals who struggle with substance abuse, including alcoholism and drug addiction.
  • Current illegal drug use is never protected under the ADA, but the ADA does protect individuals who seek treatment or are in recovery.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take time off while he/she is receiving treatment.


Employers must keep in mind their obligation to MAINTAIN CONFIDENTIALITY regarding any information, they receive about an employee’s addiction or treatment program.


When the employee has completed any treatment

requiring extended absence and is ready to return to work, it is a good practice to schedule a back-to-work conference.   A Back-To-Work Conference may be facilitated by the patient’s Clinical Case Manager and a Family Counselor.  The conference is designed to assist the patient and the employer in the patient’s re-entry to the employment site in order to alleviate any misperceptions of both parties, address behaviors and impact of such behaviors on the job, address attitudinal changes which have occurred, discuss the patient’s commitment to Continuing Care.

After the employee’s return to work, there will be some type of Continuing Care such as attending a 12-Step program or other group meetings, Outpatient therapy, EAP sessions.  Depending on the employee’s work schedule he/she may need an accommodation to attend Continuing Care appointments.

By welcoming your employee back and taking steps to ease the reintegration process, you can help set your employee up for success.


Beth Edinger

Human Resources