Keep Your Employees, but Lose Substance Abuse

Business owners often hesitate to implement substance free workplace and drug testing programs because they fear they will have to fire valuable employees. While this fear is understandable, we never recommend firing as the best course of action. Some of the main goals of a Substance Free Workplace program are to hire are retain quality employees and reduce the costs associated with turnover. Firing employees with substance abuse issues is in direct opposition to these goals. An effective Substance Free Workplace program employs the following tools to avoid having to fire an employee for substance use.

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention

Prevention. Prevention is the number one most effective tool in any substance free workplace program. Substance abuse prevention in the workplace can take many forms. Here are a few examples:

Supervisor Training – Supervisors should be trained on recognizing and addressing the earliest signs of a substance abuse issue. There are indicators that an employee is struggling long before he is abusing substances on the job. There are also specific steps that supervisors can take to prevent the progression of addiction to the stage where firing the employee is considered.

Employee Education – Employees should have a full understanding of the substance free workplace program, particularly its rationale, consequences and potential benefits to them. Employees with a solid understanding of the policy and program are much more likely to comply. They should also have an understanding of how substance abuse can affect the workplace, their health, and their families. In addition, employees should be educated on the self-referral process, including when and how to seek assistance. Many businesses post a self-referral resource guide in a common area.

Preemployment and Random Drug Testing – An extremely successful way to prevent substance abuse in the workplace is to avoid hiring individuals who already have a substance abuse problem through pre-employment drug testing. In addition, random drug testing will not only dissuade current employees from using drugs and alcohol, but it can catch potential substance problems early when they are easier to address.

Health and Wellness Programs – An employee health and wellness program is a valuable prevention tool. Many health and wellness programs explicitly include substance abuse prevention. Even without explicit substance abuse prevention, programs that incorporate peer support, stress reduction techniques, and healthy lifestyle changes will also prevent substance abuse.

Return to Work Agreements

Most businesses with substance free workplace programs address initial policy violations through return to work agreements, not through employee termination. A return to work agreement is a customized agreement between the employee and the business that outlines the conditions under which the employee may return to work. Each return to work agreement should take into consideration the nature of the violation and the employee’s job description. The goal of the return to work agreement should be to return the employ to work in a safe, productive, and sustainable manner. Some items typically found in a return to work agreement include: a substance abuse evaluation and commitment to follow through with treatment recommendations, return to work and follow up drug and/or alcohol testing, modified work duty or schedule, and consequences of failing to comply with the return to work agreement.

Know Your Resources

Every business has access to some type of resource to help them address substance abuse issues. These resources may be accessed in any stage of the process: prevention, intervention, treatment. If an employee is in danger of violating or has violated the substance free workplace policy, these resources can be tapped to assist the employee and the terms of the return to work agreement.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – These programs are designed to help employees address a wide range of problems, including substance use, which may be affecting their work performance. Each EAP offers a unique array of services, but they often include; assessment, education, counseling, and referral to treatment. Many businesses/employees already have access to an EAP through their insurance programs (often health insurance, but sometimes through life and other supplemental insurances). There are also independent EAP programs available.

Health Insurance – Every health insurance plan is different, but most will cover at least some form of substance abuse or mental health treatment. In fact, the new guidelines established by the Affordable Care Act require health insurance plans to cover substance abuse and mental health disorders at parity with other health problems. This is a great time to contact your health insurance provider and determine what type of coverage is offered by your plan.

Community Resources – There are many resources available in the community, most of which are free of charge. These include alcoholics and narcotics anonymous meetings, regional drug prevention coalitions, services through the department of health and human services, and regional and national hotlines. Spend some time developing a list of the resources available in your community.

Keep Your Employees

Keep the employees who are not abusing substances by providing them with a safe and healthy workplace and keeping them off drugs and alcohol. Keep the employees who are abusing substances by identifying them early and referring them to treatment. If you need help implementing any of the strategies above, call us at 603-205-4334


Use this tool to create an employee resource guide.

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