10 Practical Signs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in your Employees

Employers have a duty of care to their employees; a duty to protect their health, safety and welfare. Drug and alcohol abuse poses a significant health and safety risk in the workplace. The impact of substance misuse on an organisation is far-reaching; affecting not only the individual concerned but also colleagues and working relationships. Being able to recognise and understand the signs of addiction is the first step towards addressing a potential issue with an employee.

How can you tell if an employee has an issue with substance abuse?

While some warning signs can be symptomatic of other issues, such as stress or illness, there are a number of behavioural, psychological and physical signs that could indicate drug or alcohol misuse. Signs will vary from person to person and may be specific to a certain type of drug addiction, however there are common red flags you can rely on.


Behavioural signs are persistent behaviours that are at odds with an employee’s usual conduct. Changes may be infrequent in the early stages of dependency but are likely to become more telling to a colleague over time.

1. Lack of Concentration

An employee with drug or alcohol problems will likely exhibit an inability to concentrate. Routine tasks may start to take markedly longer to complete than usual. Likewise, there may be an increased frequency in errors. Combined with difficulty recalling details and following instructions, this deterioration in performance or productivity may be one of the first signs to manifest itself.

2. Poor Attendance

Acquiring and using alcohol or drugs becomes the priority in an addict’s life. As such, they are likely to become disinclined or unable to fulfil their responsibilities. From missed appointments to failing to meet deadlines, work obligations become side-lined. Employees with a drug or drink problem are more likely to be late for work or absent through short-term sickness than their colleagues. Tardiness and absenteeism can create animosity within the workforce with the knock-on effect of interpersonal problems and poor working relationships.

3. Illicit Behaviours

Employees with a drug or alcohol dependence will seek to carve out personal space and privacy at work. Frequent trips to the toilet are potentially a tell-tale sign. Whether actually using on site or experiencing side effects of abuse, the bathroom is often the only workplace space that provides privacy.

4. Money Worries

Heavy substance users incur prohibitive costs keeping on top of their habit. Employees may repeatedly ask for salary advances or to borrow money from colleagues. They may frequently make requests to the same friendship group or seek to build new relationships with colleagues with the express intention of borrowing money. The need to feed this habit may even escalate to theft of company property.

Substance abuse upsets the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. These changes have the ability to affect mood and even personality. Erratic or persistent out-of-character behaviour should trigger a warning in the workplace. An employee’s mood changes may be subtle at first but will likely become more evident over time.

5. Suspicion

Addicts are often aware that they have a problem but want to disguise it from others. They may have concerns surrounding legal implications and the repercussions on their employment. As such, individuals will often become increasingly secretive and suspicious. They may become less talkative, less willing to engage with colleagues and increasingly guarded when questioned.

6. Volatility

Studies suggest that long-term substance abuse weakens the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Responsible for self-control and emotional regulation, when weakened, it renders an individual vulnerable to volatile emotions. While an employee’s mood swings or uncontrollable loss of temper could be attributable to mental health issues, there may also be a link to alcoholism or drug addiction, as the two frequently co-occur.

7. Anxiety and Depression

Drug and alcohol abuse, often as a result of self-medication, exacerbates existing symptoms of anxiety and depression. People may experience a heightened and prolonged state of anxiety surrounding their substance use. Using becomes a basic need. The workplace restricts access to this need, making the addict feel threatened and more likely to demonstrate irritable or aggressive behaviour. There is an imbalance in brain chemistry, resulting in enhanced feelings of agitation. When aggressive behaviour collapses into feelings of futility, an individual is more likely to experience the despair and sadness of depression.

8. Risk Seeking

Addiction can often lead to risky or unethical behaviour. In line with impairment of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, foresight is also likely to suffer. People prioritise drug or alcohol use to the detriment of other considerations and responsibilities. From violating company policies to engaging in risky behaviour in the workplace, alcohol and drugs lessen the ability to foresee negative consequences of actions.

One of the overriding manifestations of addiction is the fact that it’s quite literally, all-consuming. From our work to private lives, much of what we do as people reflects who we are. When using becomes everything, a sense of identity and self-respect are eroded. This loss of self is often reflected in detrimental changes to behaviours as well as personal appearance.

9. Hygiene

Consumed by alcoholism or drug addiction, people will care very little about anything else. Other needs, such as personal hygiene will not be a priority. Showering, using deodorant and brushing teeth are not motivating factors when faced with addiction. If an employee’s appearance seems unkempt and dishevelled or obvious changes in personal hygiene occur, alarm bells should sound. Always a delicate discussion in the workplace, the subject should not be shied away from for fear of offence.

10. Physical Symptoms

A life driven by substance abuse can be chaotic and stressful. From poor nutrition, sleep deprivation and dehydration to the overwhelmingly destructive impact on the body’s organs, there are many physical symptoms that can be indicative of drug and alcohol misuse. Addiction undermines health in many ways and is reflected in physical appearance.

One obvious indicator is rapid weight loss or gain. Weight loss is a typical side-effect of stimulant abuse. Likewise, long-term alcohol abuse can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, resulting in malnutrition and rapid weight loss. Conversely, early-stage alcoholism can lead to weight gain as alcohol stimulates the appetite. Opioid use disorder, which includes prescription pain pills, is also likely to manifest in weight gain.

Persistent flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and chronic headache, may be a red flag. While it may be easy to dismiss an isolated case as a one-off illness, it’s important to keep a close eye on repeated instances of this type of sickness. If an employee is taking more and more sick days for these common physical symptoms, it may be that withdrawal is becoming increasingly difficult to mask.

If you recognise these signs in an employee and they’re as a result of substance abuse, it’s time to start addressing the issue. Ensure your workplace provides adequate support for all employees with an appropriate drug and alcohol policy. Drug or alcohol dependence treatment can guide your employee back to wellness and work; ensuring you get your organisation back to business