Addiction is a very serious problem that affects people of every age group and from every walk of life. In the workplace, addiction can create unbearable working conditions while also disrupting productivity. Therefore, it is incumbent upon managers and executive staff to develop strategies for identifying and combating workplace addiction issues in order to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for everyone involved.

One of the biggest challenges facing management in this regard is identifying addiction among workers. Moreover, because so many are unfamiliar with the topic, it is easier to just dismiss potential problems rather than dealing with them. We want to help change that. We will start by defining addiction.

Addiction vs Substance Abuse

The terms ‘addiction’ and ‘substance abuse’ are often used interchangeably. However, they are two separate things. Addiction is a form of substance abuse, but not all substance abuse equals addiction.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines substance abuse as ‘harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs’. It is important to note that the harmful use of certain types of substances can be experienced without actually being addicted to those substances. For example, one weekend of binge drinking can be very harmful to one’s health even if such drinking is the first time the individual has consumed alcohol. Harm can be done where no addiction or dependence is present.

Drug addiction is defined by the US National Institutes for Health (NIH) as ‘a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences’. Here it should be noted that medical science recognises certain behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling and sex) that have nothing to do with psychoactive substances.

Breaking down both definitions to their most basic points reveals that substance abuse is merely the harmful use of things such as alcohol and drugs, while addiction involves both a psychological and physical dependence on the substances being used. Addiction is the most extreme form of substance abuse characterised by the individual’s inability to stop using without some sort of direct intervention.

Drugs of Choice

The addictive drug of choice worldwide is alcohol. According to the Foundation for a Drug Free World, there are roughly 23 million people in the EU alone dependent on alcohol. Furthermore, alcohol is a contributing factor in 10% of all illnesses and premature deaths in Europe. The biggest challenge with alcohol is the fact that it is a socially acceptable substance that is both legal and a normal part of daily life. However, alcohol is just the tip of the iceberg. Addiction is also tied to:

  • Illicit DrugsIllicit drugs are those that are illegal to manufacture, distribute, possess, and use. They include things such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and LSD.
  • Legal Highs – Also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), these substances are legally sold online and in head shops under the guise of being plant food or bath salts. However, they are just as deadly and addictive as illicit drugs.
  • Prescription Medications – Prescription medications such as codeine and morphine are more commonly abused than most people know. It is very easy to become addicted to such medications after recovering from surgery, being treated for depression, etc.
  • Household Chemicals – Certain solvents and other household chemicals are potentially addictive. While this sort of addiction is not as common as the other three, it still is a problem throughout Europe.

Understand that an individual addicted to drugs or alcohol rarely confines him or herself to just one substance. In fact, some estimates suggest that as many as 32% of those who consider themselves heavy drinkers are also users of illicit drugs. The unfortunate truth is that addiction takes many forms, oftentimes combining multiple substances.

Recognising Signs of Addiction

The first step in helping workers who are addicted is learning to recognise the signs. Although the presence of certain types of behaviours don’t necessarily confirm a substance abuse or addiction problem, they do warrant further investigation by those with the appropriate authority. The following is a short list of signs that managers and other staff can look for:

  • unexplained changes in attendance
  • noticeable lack of productivity
  • frequent and unexplained mood swings
  • poor workplace attitude
  • lack of attention to personal appearance
  • withdrawal from interaction with other workers
  • a defensive attitude about drugs or alcohol.

When a member of management identifies the signs in a given worker, care should be taken to handle the matter affectively but delicately. All employers should have established policies in place for dealing with potentially addicted workers, as a means of facilitating necessary action.

In addition to recognising the signs of addiction and dealing with a situation appropriately, many of today’s workplaces are implementing policies covering everything from pre-employment drug screening to regular testing among current workers. It is unfortunate that such steps need to be taken, but such is the current state of substance abuse and addiction we now face. It is something we cannot ignore if we ever hope to get a handle on the problem.


  1. WHO –
  2. NIH –
  3. FDFW –