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How HR Can Support Employees Struggling With Substance Dependencies/Addiction

Background on what substance dependency can look like and how HR can provide support

Nikhil Bendre

by Nikhil Bendre - March 8th, 2022

Addiction and substance dependences are diseases that can have unmeasurable impacts on the lives of both the one immediately affected and those around them. People suffering from these diseases often see the residual impact seeping into other aspects of their lives, such as their relationships with others and their professional life. Keeping the latter in mind, there are steps that employers can take to support employees going through this. However, to best provide that support, we need to be clear on what addiction and substance dependency is and what it can look like. 

Substance Dependency: Excessive use of psychoactive drugs, such as alcohol, pain medications,  or illegal drugs. This can lead to physical, social, and/or emotional harm.

It’s also important to note that substance dependency does not look one certain way. The stigmas and stereotypes surrounding addiction are rampant, so keep in mind that this disease may look completely different depending on the person. That being said, let’s take a look at some different instances of addiction as well as some tips on what HR can do to help and develop a compassionate drug policy.

Addictions are commonly broken down into two categories - chemical and behavioral.

Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addictions can include the following:

  • Gambling

  • Shopping

  • Food

  • Social Media

  • Exercise

There is still some haze surrounding when exactly a behavior crosses the line into an addiction. Therefore, there’s no concrete way to diagnose these. However, it’s common for people experiencing these behaviors to seek therapy for them in hopes of finding healthier habits and coping mechanisms.

Chemical Addictions

On the other hand, chemical addictions can include these:

  • Alcohol

  • Opioids

  • Heroine

  • Cannabis

  • Nicotine

  • Cocaine

  • Amphetamines

  • Methamphetamine

In the case of addiction in general, some advocate for avoiding using the term “abuse,” as it further stigmatizes the victims and the condition. For chemical addiction, the lines are pretty blurred between what differentiates substance misuse, dependency, and addiction. That’s why authorities have proposed the term “Substance Use Disorder” as a sort of umbrella term to capture various levels of severity.

Signs of Drug or Alcohol Addiction

The following list contains signs that an employee may be struggling with substance abuse


  • Stumbling

  • Drowsy, sleepy, lethargic

  • Agitated, anxious, restless

  • Hostile, withdrawn

  • Unresponsive, distracted

  • Clumsy, uncoordinated

  • Flu-like complaints

  • Suspicious, paranoid

  • Hyperactive, fidgety


  • Flushed complexion

  • Sweating

  • Cold, clammy, sweats

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Tearing, watery eyes

  • Dilated (large) pupils

  • Constricted (pinpoint) pupils

  • Unfocused, blank stare


  • Slurred, thick

  • Incoherent

  • Exaggerated enunciation

  • Loud, boisterous

  • Rapid, pressured

  • Excessively talkative

  • Nonsensical, silly

  • Cursing/inappropriate language

The Pandemic’s Role

Rates of substance addiction have notably increased in recent years, so we have to consider the pandemic’s role in that. According to the CDC, soon after the pandemic began, 13% of Americans reported an increase in their use of substances in order to cope with pandemic-related stress. This may partly be because previously common coping mechanisms, especially those involving socializing and being in close proximity of others, were no longer safe. It’s no surprise that the sudden isolation brought on by COVID-19 had/has detrimental effects on mental health, and loneliness can be a very dangerous thing.

Employer Responsibility

You may be wondering, “how/where does HR tie into all of this?” It’s not very common for people to reach out to their employers when dealing with things of this nature due to fear of conflict or termination. That’s why it’s HR’s responsibility to do the following:

  • Promote Positive Reinforcement. Minimize the fear of retaliation if your team members come to you with an issue. Communicate that your first priority is the well-being of your team. It’s not just enough to say this - your policies and actions need to back this sentiment as well. Make your organization a truly safe space and make sure that your employees understand that.

  • Increase communication with your team. Taking the time to check in with your team members can be invaluable, both to you and them. This seems like a simple and obvious task, but it’s vastly overlooked. Doing this not only gives you an idea of how your employees are doing on a more personal level, but it shows your team that you genuinely care about them outside of their professional contributions.

  • Implement Employee Assistance Programs. Supporting your employees goes beyond just being an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Consider partnering with reputable rehabilitation centers in order to ease employee concerns about the logistical and financial implications of getting help.

Remember that this topic is extremely sensitive. If this type of situation arises within your organization, handle it with the utmost care. Your team member’s privacy and comfort need to be the top priority. This is an instance where we need to remind ourselves of the “Human” aspect of Human Resources, so as long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be well on your way to fostering a safe and supportive environment for your employees that may need a hand!

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