The Government of Western Australia’s Department of Commerce has a frequently-asked-questions tab on its Alcohol and Drugs webpage. There are four questions, and one of them is, “How should an employer approach someone affected by drugs or alcohol in the workplace?” The fact this is one of the most commonly asked questions is an indication of the concerns employers and coworkers have about approaching someone who is obviously impaired due to substance use or abuse. Professionals who are experienced in dealing with people under the influence of substances offer the same advice across the board: Avoid confrontation and rely on calming skills so the person does not feel more confused or threatened.
It is human nature to get defensive when confronted in anger. When the worker is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the emotional and mental balance is upset. It is likely that someone showing external signs of substance abuse is easily confused or may even be hallucinating. If the person is hallucinating, it is impossible to know for sure what the worker is seeing or hearing. As farfetched as it sounds, someone on hallucinogenic drugs might see “monsters” all around or believe snakes are getting ready to attack. Fortunately, most cases are not this severe, but there is simply no way to assess the extent of a worker’s impairment just by looking at the person. For this reason, the professionals are clear that it is best to avoid approaching someone who is mentally impaired by drugs and alcohol in a threatening or confrontational manner because the consequences can make the situation even worse.
Make No Assumptions
Workcover New South Wales makes two excellent points that employers should always keep in mind. First, supervisors should not make any assumptions. It might be the person only appears to be using illicit substances, when in fact it may be the worker is ill, overly stressed, or having issues with legal prescriptions. Making assumptions without knowing the facts can influence the supervisor’s attitude and prompt confrontation. The drug and alcohol test will help the employer sort through the facts. Second, the employer’s initial contact with the worker should be non-confrontational and an attempt to talk to the person in terms of workplace safety or work performance rather than discussing substance abuse.1
The Department of Commerce offers employers specific advice about what to say. In answering the frequently-asked-question concerning approaching someone on drugs or alcohol in the workplace, the employer is advised to be brief and stay calm, but remain firm. The instructions to the worker need to be delivered in an unemotional tone and repeated firmly as much as necessary. Using the person’s name repeatedly may penetrate the brain fog substance use can cause. The initial contact is not the time or place to debate, argue, or make accusations.2
Unpredictability is Predictable
It is important to remember that people using drugs or alcohol can respond in an unpredictable manner. The worker can be experiencing symptoms that fall anywhere on a spectrum ranging from mild intoxication to having hallucinations. The first step is keeping the worker as calm as possible, and then getting the person out of the work area and away from coworkers. Once in a safer area where it is possible to assess the person’s mental and emotional state and to complete drug and alcohol testing, the employer is in a much better position to determine the next steps to take.
Dealing with workers under the influence of drugs and alcohol is unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. The first defence again deteriorating workplace safety is random drug testing. CMM Technology (cmm.com.au) provides the state-of-the-art drug and alcohol testing supplies that demonstrate the employer’s willingness to invest in programs that keep all workers safe.
- Workcover New South Wales. (2006). Alcohol and Other Drugs in the Workplace. Retrieved December 26, 2013, Workcover New South Wales: http://bit.ly/1d1jJaa.
- Department of Commerce. (2 Nov 2010). Alcohol and Drugs – Frequently asked questions. Retrieved December 26, 2013, Government of Western Australia: http://bit.ly/MwwejQ.