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"I think my co-worker is on drugs."

With studies estimating that seven percent of the U.S. population is addicted to drugs or alcohol, chances are that many people one day will have to deal with an addicted co-worker, employee, or even supervisor. If so, when and how should one intervene?

Each situation calls for individualized handling, but there are some guidelines that can be followed, suggests Sarah Rahhal, coordinator of the Employee Assistance Program, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "When [individuals] feel they should confront a co-worker or boss, the first thing they should do is analyze their own motives. Are they a friend of this person, as well as a co-worker? Do they genuinely want to help this person, or are they more interested in getting [him or her] in trouble? Remember, denial is so much a part of this type of disease that direct confrontation often does not work."

For supervisors, the rules are a bit more clear-cut. When work performance is declining, the supervisor simply can document incidents and then talk to the employee and say something like: "This is what I've noticed about your performance, and this is what needs to change. Is there anything I can help you with to achieve this or anything you want to talk about?"

The most common symptoms of drug or alcohol addiction include mood swings, tardiness (especially the "late on Mondays" syndrome), excessive sick leave, extended lunch breaks, irritability, withdrawal, hand tremors, a decrease in the quality of work, and an increasingly unkempt appearance. Sometimes, fellow employees may be able to smell alcohol, marijuana, or other substances on the person's breath or clothing.

"Keep in mind, however, that it's not appropriate for co-workers to diagnose fellow employees," Rahhal cautions. "Many of these symptoms can stem from other physical or emotional problems, such as depression. Also, family members often notice an abuse problem much sooner than co-workers, because employees tend to take extra care not to let the people at work know about a drug or alcohol problem."

Another factor is that most individuals think of "normal" behavior being disrupted when a worker shows up clearly drunk, high, or otherwise physically impaired. "In fact, once individuals have reached the point of being addicted to a substance, their behavior often may appear 'normal' only when they have the drug in their systems. The behavior becomes disrupted only when they are withdrawing from the substance."

Although a strong stigma remains regarding such problems, many businesses are finding it cost-effective to support their employees through drug and alcohol treatment programs, rather than firing them. While the 1988 Drug-Free Workplace Act encourages businesses to help addicted employees, "There is still a long way to go to avert the stigma addicted people face. The public needs to recognize that addiction is not a weakness of character, but rather an illness, just as are measles and leukemia. If you have co-workers who are trying to recover from an addiction, they need all the compassion, non-judgmental support, and respect for their privacy that you can offer."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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