What to do if you think a colleague is struggling with drug use

Talking to a work colleague about their concerning drug use can be tricky, but knowing how to approach the conversation can set you in the right direction.

colleagues using drugs

In some workplaces, drug use is widely seen as par for the course, a way of blowing off steam or part of a broader ‘work-hard, party-hard’ culture. But drug use can have a really damaging impact on a company in terms of reputation and productivity, and also on individuals.

So what happens when this starts to have a visibly detrimental effect on a colleague? How do you approach the issue?

While as another employee, it isn’t your job to confront this issue in your colleague, sometimes as a workmate, or just a mate, the issue will arise and you’re forced to be involved. When that happens here’s some quick ways to think about the issue and address it.

1. Does your workmate have a drug problem?

First of all, ask yourself, are you sure this person is using drugs, and are you also sure the negatives in their life are stemming directly from that drug use as opposed to something else, like a developing mental illness, financial stress or family problem?

If it’s definitely drug use, and you’re really concerned but haven’t determined the scale of the problem, or what to do next, there are a few signs to consider.

Have you noticed any changes in their mood or behaviour? Do you think their mental or physical health is being affected? What about their relationships? Are standards at work slipping and deadlines being missed? Are they showing up late, missing important meetings or don’t seem to be coping with their workload? How are their relationships with clients and other colleagues?

Once you’ve thought about these things and really think there might be an issue with drug use, it’s a good idea to raise it with your manager or HR so your workmate can get some support.  

2. Talking with a colleague about drug use

First and foremost, it’s important you know that it’s not your job to talk about this issue with your colleague, and ideally the issue is escalated to a manager or HR. But sometimes the issue comes up and you feel you don’t have a choice about discussing it – maybe your workmate is reaching out for your help and support, and simply brushing them off and alerting HR or a manager isn’t the best course of action in that moment (though good to do later on).

Before you point fingers or talk about the effect they are having on others, stop and listen. Offer your help and support, firstly by listening to what they have to say. Secondly you might want to refer them to a counselling or specialist health service that is better equipped to help your colleague with their problem.

3. Talk to an HR representative or a line manager

If you know something is not right and it’s affecting things at work, it’s your responsibility to raise the issue with someone higher up, if you haven’t already. Keep things professional and strictly confidential, this is an opportunity for you to express your concerns, not gossip or damage someone’s reputation.

Knowing how to approach the conversation is often the hardest part, so just stick to the facts you know. After you book a private meeting with HR, just start the conversation as open and honestly as you can: “I set up this meeting because I’m really concerned about x”. Explain why you are concerned and use some examples of why you believe they might need some help.

4. If you don’t notice a change for the better, or you are unhappy with the response

Try again. Try another manager or team member. If safety is a concern – particularly in blue collar work places – it might be time to escalate things to someone higher up in the organisation. It’s not enough to just leave things with a manager if you know they aren’t being dealt with properly. Record the date of your meetings so you can refer to it later if need be.

Remember, at the core of this problem is a person who clearly needs help. It’s not your job to counsel or treat the person, but if you notice someone is struggling or not being safe, and you can associate those issues with drug use, it’s important you try to understand, and help them by discreetly notifying the right people in your organisation who can get them the support they need. For more information, check out our Drugs at work page

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