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Helping an Employee With an Addiction

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By Julie Bowles and Simone Arbour, PHD

— Can Be An Organization’s Greatest Health and Wellness Achievement

helping employees with addictionsOver the past few years, there has been a shift in what defines a successful organization. No longer is the balance sheet the main indicator. Now, healthy workplaces and quality health and wellness programs are one of the most important measurements of successful organizations. Companies receive recognition for their initiatives to promote employee health and wellness and proudly market their achievements. Employees may seek employment with organizations that promote employee health and wellness due to their dissatisfaction of the “work-life balance” of their current job. Potential new employees compare health and wellness programs and attitudes of future employers when choosing their next job. Employers cannot afford to overlook the role they play in nurturing a healthy workplace and happy employees.

Organizations who have embraced this new attitude of viewing their employees as more than just human resources are to be commended. However, while programs are available to help employees keep physically fit, eat healthy and manage stress, many employers still do not recognize the important role they can play in helping someone regain their health that has been lost to an addiction.

When employers are asked to consider the prevalence of addictions among their employees, they will often underestimate or even deny that there are any problems. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 76.8 per cent of people with alcohol and illicit drug addictions are employed. This finding dispels the myth that addicts are down and out and homeless. For many people struggling with an addiction, their work performance can be the last area of their life to be affected. While family and social relationships may have been destroyed by their behaviours, they are still able to continue to work.

Addiction in the workplace is very costly. The cost of lost productivity in Canada due to alcohol and drug addictions was $24.3 billion in 2002. The following analysis captures the financial burden of an addicted employee. Using the example of a registered nurse, the analysis considers the effects of absenteeism, tardiness and productivity; three areas of performance that are most impacted by an addiction.

Analysis is based on the average salary of $58,402 for a Registered Nurse with three years of service (

Area of Performance  Cost/Year
Absenteeism (days/year x daily salary) $4,433.00
Tardiness (days/year x daily salary) $561.60
Loss in Productivity $2,077.10
Total Cost
Cost-benefit (formula from Jordan et al) $7,071.70
Total cost over three years of service $21,215.10

There are many other cost factors that are not considered in the above equation, including accidents on the job, errors, costs associated with dismissal, arbitration, hiring and training, and the utilization of health benefits.

In addition to the measurable financial cost, there are a number of other factors associated with an addicted employee in the workplace. They cannot be relied on to be present and productive. They can negatively impact the productivity and morale of their co-workers. Their actions and behaviour might place their employer in a position of liability or bring negative publicity to their employer.

Understanding how an addiction can manifest itself in the workplace is the first step in being able to help an employee.

Lateness and absenteeism

  • Does your employee frequently come to work late, leave early, and take extended coffee, lunch or supper breaks?
  • Are reports regularly submitted late and other deadlines not met?
  • Is there a pattern of absenteeism on Mondays, Fridays and after payday?
  • Has the employee become moody and argumentative with supervisors and/or peers?
  • Is the employee often not at their workstation?
  • Do you notice frequent visits to the washroom or medical department?


  • Does impaired or faulty judgment cause a worker to become overly cautious to the point of slowing down production or becoming a safety hazard to himself/herself or others?
  • Does the employee cover up for accidents rather than assuming responsibility?
  • Do you notice a lower quality of work than what used to be done?
  • Are there unexplained memory lapses, a decline in
  • personal grooming habits, mood changes and an inability to cope with unexpected changes?

Being aware of these indicators can help managers and supervisors identify situations and intervene when they feel an employee may be struggling with an addiction.

Many employers are not aware of the financial impact of an addicted employee as illustrated earlier in this article. By not understanding these costs, they cannot appreciate the long-term value of an investment in treatment for their employee. In place of interpreting the results of the earlier analysis as costs, the employer should instead view them as savings. Thus, over a three-year period, the organization could save $21,215.10 in salary-related costs alone if an addiction was no longer impacting the employee’s work.

By financially supporting the employee to enter a quality treatment program and being involved in their treatment and recovery in a supportive way, an organization can have a positive impact on the health of the employee and the overall well being of the workplace. Expanding on the earlier analysis, it can be demonstrated how net savings can be realized if an organization is supportive of their employee’s treatment. The cost of a quality and comprehensive 30-day residential addiction treatment program, including one year of continuing care and a valuable program for family members, is estimated at $17,000.

Total savings over three years of service because an addiction is no longer impacting the employee’s work $21,215.10
Cost of a 30-day residential treatment program $17,000.00
NET SAVINGS $4,215.10

The positive impact of treatment on workplace performance has been documented in outcome studies completed by Bellwood Health Services. In a six-month follow-up study, clients who had completed Bellwood’s treatment program for substance abuse reported a 79 per cent decrease in absenteeism, a 90 per cent decrease in incidences of arriving late or leaving early, and a 78 per cent increase in productivity.

As an employer, you need to recognize the role you can play in helping an individual overcome an addiction and once again be a valuable member of your organization. Bellwood Health Services outcomes have shown that individuals who have had the support of their employers during treatment have had the most successful recoveries.  Financial assistance for treatment is important. Offering financial help can show your employees that you value and believe in them and that they are a worthwhile investment. This commitment to your employee will usually be reflected in their commitment to be successful in their recovery.  In addition to helping financially, there are many other important ways that you can help. The following are some suggestions to guide you when helping an employee deal with an addiction:

On a daily basis, be open with all of your employees and show that you care. Build relationships that will allow someone to feel safe in approaching you if they are struggling with an addiction.

  • Become more knowledgeable about addiction as an illness. Learn to identify potential signs that your employee might have a problem and how to approach him/her if you are concerned about his/her behaviour.
  • Be supportive and communicate the value you place on your employees, both as individuals and in their contribution to the organization.
  • Encourage and support them in seeking help and identifying the best quality treatment provider.
  • Be involved in their treatment as appropriate and learn how you can support them both during treatment and when they return to work.
  • Outline your expectations relating to involvement in continuing care and support programs following treatment, reporting, monitoring and testing as conditions of your support and continued employment.

Successful treatment and recovery from a workplace addiction should be a team effort. However, as an employer, it is important to remember that while you can intervene and be supportive, the employee is ultimately responsible for the outcome of their recovery.

Key Questions to Ask When Choosing a Treatment Provider for Your Employee

  • Does the treatment provider offer priority admissions to facilitate immediate treatment for your employee?
  • What are the treatment provider’s success rates?
  • How does the treatment provider assist with your employee’s return to work plan?
  • Will the treatment provider help facilitate back to work contracts as part of your employee’s employment conditions?
  • What is the communication process between yourself and the treatment provider regarding your employee’s program and progress?
  • What opportunities are available for you to be actively involved in the treatment process?
  • What education is available to help you understand your employee’s treatment program and on-going support needs?
  • What continuing care and post-treatment monitoring systems are available?