Addiction and Your Job

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 26, 2023
5 min read

Have you used alcohol or drugs on the job? Are you worried that past addiction could ruin your career? Federal laws protect people who are in recovery for substance abuse and no longer use illegal drugs. Employers cannot discriminate against you for your past drug or alcohol use. But when drugs or alcohol affects how you do your job now, you don’t have that same protection.

Find out what you need to know to protect your rights, get help, and keep working.

According to federal law, addiction is a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people who are in recovery and no longer:

  • Use illegal drugs
  • Use legal drugs in ways that are not legal, such as without a prescription or using more than prescribed

If you still use drugs illegally and it’s apparent at work, the ADA doesn’t protect your job.

The ADA ensures that you have the following rights as an employee or job seeker:

  • A potential employer can’t ask you about your addiction or past treatment during an interview or on a job application.
  • Your potential employer can require you to take a drug test as long as they give it to all applicants, not just you. You may have to pass a drug test to get a job offer.
  • After you get an offer and before you start the job, the employer can ask about past addiction treatment or gaps in your employment history due to time in rehab if they ask everyone in your job category these questions. At this point, it’s illegal for you to lie about this.
  • Once you are on the job, if your employer has reason to believe substance use is affecting your performance, they can ask about your medical history or ask you to take a drug test.
  • The ADA is a federal law, so it won’t protect your job if you test positive for medical marijuana, even though some states have approved both recreational and medical cannabis. Your state may have laws that protect your job if you use marijuana.

Drinking or using drugs at work can cost you your job, but it doesn’t stop people from doing it. In a national survey, 15% of employed Americans said they work under the influence of alcohol and that their drinking impairs their work. In another survey, 63% of employees admitted that it was easy to bring booze to work, drink during the workday, or get alcohol at work. Almost that many workers said the same was true for illegal drugs. In fact, positive drug tests among workers have doubled in recent years.

Workplace drug use includes opioid abuse at work, too. About 3 out of 4 employers say that opioids affect their workplaces. In 2019, about 6% of deaths from workplace injuries were due to opioid overdose on the job.

But what’s causing on-the-job drinking and drug use? Could your job be putting you at risk for addiction? It could be the long hours that drive you to drink. Research shows that people who work 55 or more hours a week are more likely to drink in risky ways. Work-related stress and risk of danger or physical harm on the job are other common triggers.

Stressors from your life outside of work may drive you to drink or get high, too. You have to do your job so you can support your family and pay your bills. To help take the edge off these pressures, you may bring booze or drugs to work.

Here are some tips to help you avoid work-related triggers:

  • Pass up invitations to risky situations, like happy hours with co-workers.
  • Use physical activity, such as a midday walk break or a workout in the company gym, rather than substances to burn off work stress.
  • Talk to a friend you trust or your addiction sponsor. Keep their number in your phone. Call or text them if you’re in a situation at work that makes you want to drink or use drugs.
  • If you are at a work function where you feel pressure to drink, make an excuse to leave.

You may think that you hide it well, but your co-workers or boss could already know that you drink or get high on the job. You might show up at work with a hangover or still be tipsy. Your clothes or breath may smell like alcohol or marijuana.

They may notice that you take a lot of sick leave or that you’re often late to work. You might make a lot of mistakes, miss deadlines, or make excuses for not doing your job.

Other telltale signs that you’re drunk or high at work include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Not being able to complete tasks
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unsteady walk

When it’s apparent that you work under the influence, your job could be on the line.

If your boss suspects you might be drunk or high at work, they can ask you about your alcohol and drug use or have you take a drug test. They can also fire you.

But your employer may allow you to take a leave of absence to get treatment for addiction. The law doesn’t require them to do this, but some will offer you a last-chance agreement to get help.

Your employer may have an employee assistance program (EAP). In this program, a counselor meets with you and can refer you for addiction treatment.

Once you’re in recovery, your EAP counselor can meet with you and your supervisor to go over your ongoing treatment, job requirements, and if you need work adjustments or close supervision.

If substance use caused you to lose your job, all is not lost. Once you’re stable in recovery, you can get back to work. People do it all the time. And now you know that employers cannot discriminate against you because of your past.

Here are some tips to help you get ready for your job search:

  • Find out what’s changed in your industry while you were out of work. Do some research. Update your resume.
  • Look for training programs in your area or online so you can learn new skills or software.
  • Check out nonprofit support groups for job seekers in recovery, or contact your state’s vocational rehabilitation agencies for guidance.
  • Stay positive! Just because you made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you can’t get back to work and do a great job.