Recognizing Signs of Drug Use at Work

You can promote a healthy work environment by educating yourself, your employees, and your colleagues about how to recognize the signs of drug use at work. Thinking ahead about preventing and managing drug use helps you create effective, compassionate policies that keep your workplace safe. It also increases the likelihood that employees who are using drugs will seek treatment and succeed in recovery.

Understanding Substance Abuse: Signs of Drug Use in the Workplace

Understanding substance abuse helps you effectively manage issues that arise. There are other reasons than drug use for the following indicators, but if there’s a pattern of one or many occurring that should be explored. Physical signs of drug use in the workplace include:

  • Impaired reaction time
  • Slurred speech
  • Reduced awareness
  • Sudden incapacity
  • Restricted mobility
  • Distorted hearing or vision

Mentally, an employee may show:

  • Unusual irritability or aggression
  • Confusion
  • Worsening personal hygiene
  • Fluctuations in mood, energy, or focus

These physical and mental challenges are likely to impact an employee’s behavior and performance. You may notice:

  • Decreased ability to successfully complete tasks
  • Taking brief, frequent time off
  • Inaccurate time-keeping
  • Increasingly intense or negative communication
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Reduced perception and coordination
  • Decreased ability to reason
  • Diminished memory
  • Poor judgment

The Impact: Drug Use Impact on Job Performance

The impact of drug use on job performance is mentally and financially taxing to both employers and employees. When job performance and productivity are unpredictable or decreased, it impacts employers’ and colleagues’ ability to accurately delegate tasks, plan sequentially, set deadlines, and ultimately complete projects. Even if only one employee is using it, everyone around them is usually impacted. This can lead to diminished morale and even a sense of hopelessness that an organization or job matters. Setting clear expectations helps prevent drug use at work, increases an employer’s ability to detect it as soon as it occurs, and gives clear protocol for managing it and reducing its impact.

Taking Action: Drug Testing in the Workplace

workplace drug use

Drug testing in the workplace is undertaken at various times and frequencies, depending on the nature of work being done and when it is most vital for employees to be sober. Common times to test include:

  • Application and hiring
  • Annual physical exam
  • For-cause: when someone is clearly unfit for duty 
  • Reasonable suspicion: when an employee has a documented pattern of unsafe work behavior 
  • Accident investigation
  • Post-treatment 
  • Random 

Drug testing in the workplace is most commonly done for five categories of drugs: 

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Opiates
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

Testing randomly chosen individuals at randomly chosen times is considered the most effective way to deter drug use at work. 

Substance Abuse Policy in the Workplace

Having a clear substance abuse policy in workplace hiring materials and your location promotes a healthy, positive work environment. Employees are more likely to follow safety procedures, consistently complete their work accurately and efficiently, and feel satisfied with their jobs if they understand that they work in a drug-free environment.

Employers can discourage substance use through verbal and visual messages at work by:

  • Using a term like “drug-free workplace” in application materials, interviews, and visible signage
  • Posting your policy and the laws about employee drug testing in public places
  • Sharing about an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides confidential assessment, counseling, and referral for those concerned about substance use
  • Promoting general physical and mental health through worksite activity or nutrition programs 

Laws and Regulations: Drug Use in the Workplace Laws

Drug use in the workplace laws include policies by the ADA designed to prevent unjust policies. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically permits employers to ensure that the workplace is free from the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol, and to comply with other federal laws and regulations regarding drug and alcohol use. Employees who use substances must meet the same requirements as other employees. The ADA provides limited protection from discrimination for people in recovery. 

In all testing situations, employees have the constitutional right to be informed of their policies ahead of time. You must disclose that testing will be required, and at what frequency or that it will be random. Employees need to know that drug use and positive test results aren’t acceptable in your workplace, and what will happen if they decide to use drugs or alcohol.

Helping Hands: Intervention for Workplace Drug Use

Facilitating an intervention for workplace drug use can be stressful, but there are ways to conduct it compassionately and effectively. You can start with statements or open-ended questions such as:

  • “You don’t seem like yourself and I’m wondering how I can help”
  • “I’ve noticed that you’re having trouble doing tasks that seemed easy for you before”
  • “Your drug test was positive and I’m concerned about you” 
  • “I’m worried that you’re not able to do your job safely because _____”
  • “Why do you think you were too shaky to operate that machine the other day?” 

Especially as substance use is often accompanied by denial and shame, addressing employees non-judgmentally makes it easier for them to admit to using, accept your support, and explore treatment and recovery options. There are resources to help you make your workplace drug-free. Contact WhiteSands Treatment at 877-997-9695 today for effective strategies to create a safer workplace.


What are the most common signs of drug use at work?

The most common signs of drug use at work are unpredictable attendance, inconsistent performance, intense or erratic communication, unusual tiredness or clumsiness, and change in coordination or ability.

How can drug use impact job performance and productivity in the workplace?

Drug use may cause an employee to behave erratically, ineffectively, and unsafely in the workplace. This makes it more difficult to work positively with others, complete tasks, and meet project deadlines.

What should employers know about conducting drug testing in the workplace?

Employers should understand that while it is legal to conduct drug testing in the workplace, they must first be transparent with their employees about how and when they will do so. They must also avoid discriminating against people who have recovered from substance use in their hiring process.

What are the key elements of an effective substance abuse policy in the workplace?

The key elements of an effective substance abuse policy in the workplace are education about the nature of and impact of drug use in the workplace, transparency from the application process through orientation about workplace expectations, and effective, readily available support for those who fail the drug policy and decide to seek treatment. 

What legal considerations exist regarding drug use in the workplace?

Employers have the right to conduct drug testing in any way or frequency they choose, but they must clearly share their policy and notify employees that they will be tested.

How can an intervention for workplace drug use be properly and sensitively handled?

Intervening as quickly as you can when an employee appears to be using drugs helps to protect them and your other employees. Convey your observations and concerns by starting with simple statements, then ask open-ended questions to gather information and determine next steps.

What strategies can be implemented to create a safe and drug-free work environment?

It’s important to clearly express your expectations of a drug-free workplace from the beginning, share your policy and the laws around testing, and make confidential resources for recovery visible and easy to access.

If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.