Here’s the scenario: Your coworker is exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior at work and you are concerned it may possibly be an addiction problem. It could be to alcohol, prescription or nonprescription drugs or even a behavioral addiction to gaming, gambling or sex. What should you do?

This is a very difficult position to be in for sure.

You could ignore the whole thing thinking that might be the easiest, most comfortable way and you don’t want your friend to get in “trouble” with the boss or even worse, get fired. The thing is however your coworker is already suffering and in trouble, especially if you are noticing it at work, and it’s likely only going to get worse for them. You know in your heart of hearts that being a bystander is not the right thing to do. What if something dire happens to your friend, their family, a completely innocent stranger or the organization you both work for? You would most likely regret not reporting your concerns to someone.

Hopefully, you will decide that your coworker needs your help. Because s/he most likely does!

Addiction is serious. Addiction is a disease. A disease of the brain, body, and soul. And like many diseases, addiction can be treated. Not cured, but treated. Just as you wouldn’t ignore the fact that your coworker has had a hacking cough for a month, the signs of addiction should also not be ignored.

What are some of the signs you may see?

Some include:

  • Frequent or prolonged absences from work, often without prior notice
  • Frequent and lengthy trips to the bathroom where substances could be stashed and/or used
  • Mistakes, diminishing productivity, lateness, uneven work performance, distraction
  • Behavioral changes-moodiness, arguments, changes in quality of interactions with co-workers
  • Inappropriately dressed for the weather; sweating or other physical signs of addiction or withdrawal
  • Change in hygiene or personal appearance. Injuries related to falls or fights

What is my responsibility?

You have a certain professional responsibility to your company. Addictions can affect your entire organization from the janitor to the CEO. It can affect personal paychecks, reputation and the future of your company. Everyone that you work with, including you, could be adversely affected.

And of course, there are moral and ethical responsibilities. We are in the midst of an opioid crisis that in America alone was responsible for more than 72,000 deaths in 2018 according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA.) The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), reports approximately 88,000 alcohol-related deaths. The opioid crisis has decreased the life expectancy of Americans for the first time in decades. It is costing billions of dollars to our economy. These statistics are shocking in and of themselves and no class, race, profession, or part of the country is immune.

What should I do?

Unless you are really, really good friends with your coworker confronting them alone is not a good idea. Chances are they will deny the problem and get angry with you.

The best course of action is the one that communicates your concern while maintaining professionalism and ethical treatment of your co-worker. Your unique knowledge of your co-worker and your roles within your place of work may impact the timing, setting and manner that is most likely to result in a productive conversation. Regardless of your particular relationship with your co-worker, attempting to employ a confrontational approach or threatening potential consequences from continued use are not likely to yield positive results. These approaches can communicate a sense of judgment that may result in your co-worker’s denial and heightened defensiveness that may impede future conversations about substance use.

If you decide to have a conversation with your co-worker about their suspected substance abuse, it is important to communicate early and often that your actions are motivated by a concern for his or her health. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to assist your co-worker in identifying potentially hazardous behaviors and encourage them to access appropriate treatment. The goal is not “being right” and it is unlikely that your co-worker’s initial response will be one of acceptance and gratitude.

Denial and avoidance are characteristic aspects of substance dependency and moving beyond this mindset requires motivation and effort on the part of the person using substances. You alone cannot walk s/he through the recovery process, but you can guide and walk alongside s/he with understanding that everyone’s pace and path to recovery to unique.

Your first step could be to research your organizational policies. There may be a mechanism already in place on how best to handle the situation. If there is a Human Resources (HR) department they can be available to discuss your concerns, even initially about an anonymous employee. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other options for seeking consultation around the matter as well. There are laws in most stated to protect the rights and privacy of both yourself and your coworker.

One of my favorite quotes which I believe could pertain to this scenario is:

“Anyone who saves a life is as if he saved the entire world.”

The Coleman Institute for Addiction Medicine is equipped to handle medical detoxification from opiates or alcohol safely, comfortably and confidentially. We have sites throughout the country. But again, leave the details of treatment and recovery to your organization, your friend and their supports. Hopefully, you have helped begin the process of healing and recovery. Whether they know it or not.

Dr. Deborah Reich