They say that hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at my coworker’s descent into substance abuse, I can now see the situation clearly. Coming to work late or not at all, not picking up students, excuses that didn’t make any sense, the cognitive decline — all the signs were clearly there, yet I failed to see them. Worse yet, I failed to help her.
According to statistics gathered by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly 10 percent of full-time workers have abused drugs or alcohol in the past year. More staggering is that 60% of workers know someone who has reported to work under the influence. Chances are good that if you haven’t already, you will know someone in your workplace that will be a substance abuser. Here are ways to recognize and help a coworker who might have a problem:
RECOGNIZE THE SYMPTOMS
Though some of the signs may vary by the substance of choice, what you observe when interacting with the person is important. With my coworker, the severity was inconsistent and slow. This created confusion and denial on my part, primarily because of the tendency to think the symptoms were caused by something other than substance abuse (“maybe she’s having a bad morning” or “maybe she’s burned out”). Also, my coworker always had a great story to mask her impaired frame of mind. At this point I’m really not sure what was true, but I let her excuses fool me. The Department of Labor’s Working Partners for a Drug-Free Workplace has identified these symptoms that fall into three categories:
Physical: weight loss, physical deterioration, chills or sweating
Emotional: anxiety, depression, burnout, paranoia
Behavioral: limited attention span, irritability, impaired coordination, poor motivation
I also observed an inability to follow directions, being unreliable, and argumentative.
DON’T BE AN ENABLER
Looking back, I realize that I may have excused my coworker’s behavior and possibly delayed her from getting the help she needed. Although unacceptable behavior by a worker who is misusing drugs or alcohol should never be tolerated, sometimes this is a very difficult thing to do. Often, it seems easier to try to ignore behavior than to do something about it. Some of the mistakes I made included:
- Covering up for a my coworker’s behavior by making excuses or helping her with missed paperwork rather than letting it be known that she was not doing her job.
- Developing reasons why her behaviors were understandable or acceptable.
- Avoiding contact with my coworker.
- Making idle threats to take action (for example, talking to administration), but not following when through she continued her behavior.
Eventually I began to feel angry and resentful towards my coworker, but kept pushing aside my suspicions (which she vehemently denied). Although it is not our responsibility to diagnose a substance problem, I now feel it is our job to OBSERVE behavior that is typical of someone abusing substances and to try to protect himself/herself, co-workers and students. Ignoring a problem only allows it to continue.
STEPS TO TAKE IF YOU SUSPECT SUBSTANCE ABUSE
1. Identify and show concern for your co-worker. Tell the person you have noticed a change in behavior and express your concern for them and for the safety of all others at the workplace (in my case–the students!). Realize that you do NOT need to get him/her to admit they have a substance abuse problem.
2. Describe your observation of specific behaviors, using specific days and/or times rather than using “you always” and other similar phrases.
3. Connect the behavior to the substance abuse or suspected substance abuse. Explain how their behavior is affecting you and others at work.
4. Urge the person to get help and give information about how to get it (go to counseling, family doctor, etc.)
5. Tell your co-worker you will no longer hide the substance abuse for him or her. Do not make idle threats. Be willing and able to follow through on your threat, whether it is to stop covering up or to turn him/her in or any other threat you have made. Be willing to “draw a line in the sand” and hold firmly to that line.
THINGS NOT TO DO
- Get angry
- Be accusatory
- Blame the other person
- Be judgmental
- Talk to other co-workers about your concern, as rumors can be vicious.
TALKING TO ADMINISTRATION
When you have done all that you think you can, one of your first lines of defense is to understand what your organization’s drug-free workplace policy is. Review the policy, which may also dictate who is the best person to involve. Once that is determined, provide that person with the information you used initially to talk with your co-worker about his or her substance problem. That person usually has more options available through the workplace to help your co-worker get assistance.
This experience has been heart wrenching for many people. As I stand on the other side of the events that have taken place over the past year, I wish I had handled things much differently. I believe that it is the responsibility of SLPs to be aware of their surroundings and to do what they can to make the work environment safe for everyone. Be willing to show your concern for your fellow employees, your workplace and yourself. Most importantly, help your fellow workers get the help they need.
Have you had a similar experience? Please share in comments below.