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The latest buzz: workplace impairment

Baked, bombed, sleep-deprived, or stressed out? It isn’t always easy to tell. Learn what to do if you suspect substance abuse—or something else—may be affecting an employee’s work performance.

posted June 24, 2016

By Courtnay Slabaugh, SAIF organizational development consultant

Being awake for more than 20 hours can be equal to having a blood-alcohol concentration of .08—the legal limit for intoxication in Oregon.

With the recent legalization of cannabis in Oregon, there's been a lot of talk about impairment in the workplace. Often the first thing people want to do is implement a substance abuse policy. While this is a good start, it might not be enough.

It's often difficult to know if behavior or performance changes are due to substance use or something else. Being impaired is defined as having "a human faculty or function weakened or damaged." This can be due to illicit drugs, but it can also be from other things: sleep deprivation, stress, over-the-counter medications, over use or improper use of prescription drugs, and even undiagnosed medical conditions.

So what can businesses do if they notice a change in employee behavior or performance?

If your company has a substance abuse policy and you suspect that the impairment is related to substance use, you can refer to the "reasonable suspicion" clause in your policy for guidelines about how to proceed.

But what if you aren't sure? Supervisors and managers aren't trained to diagnose substance use or provide treatment or counseling. What they can do is identify and address job performance issues.

Your job is to make sure that work is being done safely and effectively. Here's how:

Impaired workers are 25% to 30% less productive.

Focus on the behavior

Let's say you've noticed some changes in the way an employee is acting. Maybe they're arriving late or communicating inappropriately with customers. Perhaps you observe unsafe work practices or a drop in productivity or work quality.

When you focus on the behavior, the conversation moves from accusations and perceptions to specific performance issues.

Have clear policies, procedures, and expectations

And use them to evaluate the behavior you are observing. These guidelines will also help you be better prepared to have a focused and productive conversation with your employee. For example:

  • What are your expectations about timeliness?
  • What are the procedures around using a piece of equipment safely?
  • How are employees expected to communicate with customers?
  • What are your performance standards for production and quality?

Make sure your performance expectations have been documented and clearly communicated to your employees before they begin the job. And review them at least once a year.

In a national survey: 7.1% of workers reported drinking alcohol during the work day.

Encourage employees to deal with work-related problems that may or may not be connected with alcohol or other drug use.

Communicate in a direct and timely manner

Performance management conversations can be difficult, so it's important to plan them ahead of time. Think through what you want to say and identify the best time and place to meet.

During the conversation, describe the observable behavior and have specific examples:

  • You have been late coming back from lunch four times in the past two weeks.
  • I've received three complaints from customers about your phone communication.
  • I observed you driving the forklift too fast and outside the designated area.
  • You regularly meet or exceed our daily production goals. This week, you're 30 percent below your normal output.

Oregon has the highest rate of prescription painkiller abuse in the U.S.

Emphasize the need for performance improvement. Give clear expectations and explain what actions will be taken if the performance does not improve. Document the conversation and provide a copy, electronic or otherwise, to the employee.

Remember, your job is not to diagnose the possible impairment or substance abuse issues. However, you can offer resources. Ask if there is something that the business can do to help the employee meet their performance expectations. Consider referring employees to an employee assistance program. The solution may be as simple as having a short conversation and offering re-training.

Follow up

70% of people who abused prescription painkillers got the drugs from friends or relatives.

It's important to make sure the performance issue has been satisfactorily resolved. If the employee is still not meeting the expectations that you discussed, ensure you follow up with the next steps outlined in your policy and during your previous conversation.

Crafting a substance abuse policy

Substance abuse policies send a clear message that substance use on the job is not allowed. They can also encourage employees to seek help with subance abuse problems.

These tips can help you get started:

  • There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all policy. Make sure to tailor the policy to your business.
  • For the policy to be effective, you need a drug testing process to enforce it.
  • Consult with an employment law attorney or HR consultant to develop drug testing procedures and disciplinary actions.
  • Consider including a wide range of impairments that could have a negative impact on your workplace.
  • Many businesses are relying on all-in-one substance abuse consulting services. These companies will help you develop an effective policy and oversee the testing. This ensures you are applying the policy and testing/selection process consistently and fairly.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S.

Impairment isn't just an issue for construction or manufacturing. Impaired employees can cause a lot of damage in an office setting too. Do you want someone who is impaired reconciling your books at the end of the month? What about having a sleep-deprived employee driving across town for a meeting? Whether it's your mechanic, physician, or accountant, we have an unspoken expectation that these professionals are not impaired.Online resources

Substance abuse issues may fall into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An employment law attorney, HR consultant, or the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) can help with questions regarding ADA provisions.

Online resources:

Create customized drug-free workplace policies (U.S. Department of Labor)

Get an initial consultation from the Oregon State Bar's lawyer referral service: 800.452.7636.

Learn more about drug-free workplace programs (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)