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How to Identify Red Flags That Staff May Be Misusing Substances

One of the key skills that can be used to transform substance misuse among staff is knowing how to observe behaviors that may indicate use. Here are examples of workplace behaviors that may suggest use by an employee and offers ways to appropriately respond. In some cases, these behaviors, or a combination of them, may serve as probable cause for drug testing.


The information below is provided by the Substance Abuse Mental Health and Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • Unexplained Absenteeism: Employees experiencing relapse or misuse problems will likely experience increased unplanned absences. Unplanned time off usually presents itself as sick time. The employee might call in sick more frequently or show a pattern of calling in sick to extend planned time off such as holidays or weekends. Other patterns of unexplained absenteeism that may indicate a problem include being absent the day after payday or coming in on payday for a check and then leaving. SAMSHA Suggested Response: Create a sick time policy that incorporates components that allow for key staff to be able to recognize warning signs of possible substance use and provide a proactive response. Examples: a policy that states once a specified number of absences in a fixed time is exhausted then a doctor’s note is mandatory; a policy that allows employees to use of sick time to attend treatment and to modify or reduce work schedules while employees are seeking treatment; a policy that allows employees to use of sick time to attend EAP or Peer Support sessions, etc.

  • Misuse of Work Hours: Employees experiencing substance use problems often have difficulties meeting scheduled responsibilities. These difficulties may manifest as tardiness, long lunches, and frequent breaks or unaccounted for time. SAMHSA Suggested Response: Supervisors should look for these behaviors and intervene quickly. When patterns of behavior emerge, the supervisor should point out to the employee that he or she has observed the employee’s problem. The supervisor should point out that these behaviors decrease the employee’s effectiveness and are not acceptable. Employees should be monitored and reminded about the supportive services available to them. The supervisor can state that sometimes issues in one’s personal life can lead to absenteeism, tardiness and a general lack of accountability.

  • Productivity and Effectiveness: Substance use often results in a marked change in employee productivity. It is important to note that an unexpected increase in activity, such as reporting increased service hours, may be as indicative of a problem as a decrease in productivity. Substance misuse is likely to interfere with effectiveness in the work setting. Supervisors should know that changes in productivity and effectiveness can signal substance misuse and should be aware of marked positive and negative changes in both areas. SAMHSA Suggested Response: Productivity and effectiveness are generally not covered by specific policies; therefore, management and clinical supervision are key to recognizing problems in these areas.

  • Quality Assurance: Quality assurance encompasses a wide range of activities, including actual service delivery, record keeping, and relationships with peers and others. Problems with service quality may manifest as client complaints, errors in record keeping or missing records, complaints from co-workers, and general behavior in the workplace. SAMHSA Suggested Response: Supervision is important, including announced and unannounced employee observation in the service delivery setting and regular file reviews. A quality assurance policy that incorporates these considerations is included as part of the toolkit.

For more information, read Recovery Business Association's full toolkit here.