Could workplace drug use be affecting your employee performance?

Decreasing employee performance, motivation and productivity could be a sign that they have a drug problem. It's therefore important to understand the signs of possible drug use and know how to effectively approach the problem.

Workplace drug use affecting employee performanceDecreasing productivity and performance in the workplace can be a difficult management challenge. Not just because it can relate to emotions or other such intangible issues, but because the list of possible causes can be so vast and far reaching that it can often take a Christopher Columbus-style exploration to figure out what's really going on.

Interestingly, dealing with productivity issues on a more mass scale can sometimes be easier than understanding and addressing individual performance issues – at least when it comes to defining the problem. When a whole workforce, or a large portion of it, seems to be under-performing, it often just takes a little look into leadership, internal change, external economic factors and job insecurity, to start to paint a picture of why team after team just can't hit their performance figures. After all, if a happy team is a productive team, then an insecure team that is too invested in sensationalist economic news, is not likely to be the most productive. When mob mentality is driving dwindling performance, pinpointing the root cause or causes can be as simple as watching the news or your leader in action.

Understanding productivity challenges on an individual level is different and somewhat more difficult – especially if that individual isn’t forthcoming about the reasons for their declining performance. It is sifting and sorting through a myriad of possible issues and trying to determine the best course of action, without being so invasive that the employee feels victimised or attacked.

It may be due to this vast list of possible issues, or just the list of somewhat taboo HR conversations that one possible cause of declining performance, drug use, can sometimes be overlooked.

So why aren't we seeing the workplace drug problem right in front of us?

Business Insider Australia reports 300,000 people who misuse drugs are in full time employment. Look around, it could be the girl next to you, the executive in the corner office, or even the guy driving the crane that seems to be perched precariously outside your high up office window. Now this is not a witch hunt, but it does emphasise the fact that drug use may be a factor in some of your workplace problems.

But you know what drugs look like right? Whether it was last weekend, or last decade, you were at parties or clubs where people were clearly on some sort of party pills or uppers, or at get togethers where a joint may have been passed around. You know to look for changes in a person’s eyes and a lack of focus. But if those symptoms aren’t present, does it really rule drugs out?

Knowing what to look for

One reason drugs may be overlooked as a root cause of any productivity, safety or other issues in your workplace, may simply be that some HR professionals or managers don’t know what to look for. Alternatively, they subconsciously dismiss the idea people would use before or at work, so put symptoms down to other things.

Different drugs have different effects – and for some people the effects may be strong and noticeable, for others more subtle. Ensuring your HR team and managers know what signs to look for – especially in workplaces where safety is an issue – is crucial. It’s also important these leaders are aware of longer-term effects – it’s easy to spot drug use at a party, the eyes and the sweating often give it away, but would you think to consider a combination of a lack of focus, motivation, memory and learning challenges or even sleep issues, as a possible drug issue?

Are you using drugs?

It’s a tough question isn’t it? On one hand, it’s directly tackling a potential problem, on the other hand, it can really sound quite accusatory and be very confronting. And if you’re wrong, it can be downright offensive. Despite this, one of the reasons that issues associated with workplace drug use may not be picked up, is because talking about it or ‘accusing someone’, is taboo. And so it should be!

If you suspect someone’s workplace performance is being affected by drug use, it’s important to consider you may be wrong and that accusing them of drug use may be counter-productive – their symptoms could easily be caused by stress, harassment and illness, or a number of other issues. But just because that may be the case, doesn’t mean you should let it go. Instead, approach the issue from a supportive angle, looking out for the employee’s best interests, addressing only their performance issues and consider a wide-range of possible causes, including drugs if the signs are there.

Do you know what your role is?

Likewise, the lack of a robust workplace drug and alcohol policy – which really underpins HR/Safety policy and processes relating to this issue – can mean people in positions of leadership don’t actually know how they are to address suspected drug use. Do you fire them on the spot? Call the police? Approach the person yourself? Having a drug policy that is clearly communicated, and ensuring all organisational employees – from top to bottom, know what is expected of them, and what to do if they suspect drug use by a colleague, can be vital in creating a drug-free culture.

Mates don’t dob in mates

Finally – and many of us have experienced this throughout our careers – if you work for a tight team, chances are you cover for each other when things aren’t going so well for someone. What this can mean is that if a workmate suspects their colleague has an issue – drug use or something else – rather than talk to their manager or HR (or even the colleague!), they will simply revert to a role of providing extra support for that person, and covering for them, with the hopes the situation will pass and the person will go back to normal.

While this sort of comradery is admirable, what it does mean is that problems can often be swept under the rug – which can result in the problem getting bigger, further consequences like decreases in team moral, or worse, the affected person’s actions may cause harm in some way to themselves or someone else. Employees need to know they can talk to someone if something is wrong with a colleague – and it’s not ‘dobbing them in’ but helping them out.

Creating a culture like this means fostering strong and fair leadership, open communication, clear education, and most obviously, measured responses. After all, if one person talks to their manager about a workmate and that workmate is then terminated with no explanation, word will spread pretty quickly that covering for someone is better than dobbing them in.

Considering drugs as an issue

Drug use will not be the root cause of the majority of productivity or safety problems; but it may lie at the heart of some. Making a conscious effort to include it in the mix when investigating reported or observed issues can mean saved time due to earlier correct diagnoses of the problem, and that the appropriate response is employed the first time. This not only results in a more rapid recovery to productivity, but equally important, better and more appropriate support for your employee, and a quicker return to a safer, more productive workplace.

So don’t jump to conclusions, go accusing people, or think drugs underpin every dire situation your company has ever faced. But in future, when considering productivity issues with relevant signs, ask yourself, could workplace drug use be affecting employee performance? If you'd like more information on workplace drug issues, including how to develop a workplace drug policy, check out NCPIC's Drugs at Work web centre.

-->