Impairment in the Workplace

Impairment in the workplace is probably one of the trickiest safety issues faced by employers today.  Sure it’s super easy to tell if someone is obviously drunk or high, but what do you do about it?   And what about those that you just suspect may be impaired in some way but you can’t be absolutely sure?

There are many kinds of impairment from sleep deprivation to mental illness to chemical abuse. Let’s focus on the most detrimental and potentially costly – chemical dependency and abuse.  Most companies have some kind of policy that they can refer to for corrective actions, but does that really help the person or the company?  Or is it just designed for procedure and discipline?

The problem

According to the NSC, nearly 21 million Americans are living with substance use disorder.  15,750,000 of those people are employed.  Employees dealing with addiction miss up to 50% more days than those who are not – on average 6 days more.  That’s a crazy amount of work and productivity loss.

Employees with substance abuse issues have higher health care costs as well, up to three times that of someone not dealing with an addiction.

Signs of impairment

Substance abuse or dependency doesn’t typically happen overnight, but it can, with certain triggers or stresses.   Luckily, there are signs that we can watch out for and address – usually without incident if handled correctly.  Besides the obvious signs – smelling like a brewery or winery, stumbling, slurred speech, etc. what other, more subtle, signs should we be watching out for? Here are some changes to watch for in your employees that could signal there is something going with them:

Physical signs:

  1. Deterioration in appearance and/or personal hygiene
  2. Unexplained bruising
  3. Sweating
  4. Complaints of headaches
  5. Tremors
  6. Restlessness
  7. Frequent use of breath mints / gum / mouthwash
  8. The odor of alcohol on breath or clothing
  9. Twitching or shaking
  10. Incoherent or muddled speech
  11. Excessive tiredness or hyperactivity

Psychosocial signs:

  1. Family or co-worker disharmony
  2. Major mood fluctuations
  3. Inappropriate verbal or emotional responses
  4. Inappropriate workplace behavior
  5. Confusion or memory lapses
  6. Lack of focus or concentration
  7. Lying or completely ridiculous excuses for behavior or mistakes
  8. Irritability
  9. Isolation from colleagues

Performance signs:

  1. Calling in sick frequently
  2. Requesting a move to a position with less visibility or supervision
  3. Arriving late or leaving early on a consistent basis
  4. Extended breaks, especially without telling colleagues they are leaving
  5. Forgetfulness
  6. Judgment errors
  7. Deterioration in performance
  8. An excessive number of incidents / mistakes
  9. Non-compliance with policies
  10. Doing just enough to get by
  11. Sloppy / illegible / or incorrect work
  12. Sudden and noticeable changes in work quality

We’re not saying these are all signs of only a chemical dependency problem.   They could be signs of a major change in their home life or signs of a psychological issue manifesting itself.  Either way, they are definite red flags to pay attention too.    Especially if they are exhibited by a one-time good or great employee.  As employers, it’s our responsibility to maintain a safe and productive workplace for everyone.  Being aware of changes like these in employees allows you to discover and address any issues that your employee is experiencing and possibly save someone from causing an accident, losing their job, losing their family, or even losing their life.

What can we do?

As employers, we are in a unique position to recognize and help any employee that is struggling with some sort of substance or chemical dependency.  We see that person every day and know how they perform when not impaired, so we have a good frame of reference and a good reason to discuss the problem.  However, most managers or supervisors are not trained to recognize the signs of impairment, when it’s not blatantly obvious.  And most are certainly not trained to diagnose, offer treatment, or counseling.  What we can do is address the job performance issues and from there take further action as we learn more about the situation as it is unfolding.

As employers and management we can:

  1. Recognize and accept that this is a widespread issue that affects every company at some time in every industry.  It’s dangerous, potentially deadly, and very costly
  2. Develop a strong and clear company substance use policy
  3. Set expectations and discreet methods for reporting suspicious activity or behavior
  4. Develop a training program for managers / supervisors / leads / foreman / etc. so that they learn how to spot the signs
  5. Develop an open-door policy for those that are struggling.  Give them a safe space, within reason, to acknowledge that they have a problem and that they need help
  6. Provide resources on local counseling centers, programs, or facilities near that your employee can talk with.  If you want to be really great, make sure they accept your insurance
  7. Setup a company meeting to discuss this issue and clearly communicate your policy, your expectations, and your willingness to help when needed


There’s no easy answer to this health crisis.  All we can do is keep our eyes and ears open, learn to spot early warning signs and learn how to appropriately deal with the issue when it crosses our path.


As always we hope that we have provided some useful information and sources.


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