How to talk to team members about substance use disorder

Alcohol and drug use have always been a bigger issue for restaurants than other workplaces. Steve Palmer, restaurateur and co-founder of Ben’s Friends explained the connection to Restaurant Business: “I don’t want to say that it’s an environment that makes you drink. But certainly stress, adrenaline, [the] fast pace—and then it just kind of stops. That leads to people feeling like they need a release,” he said. When you add in the common practice of shift drinks and the availability of cash, it adds up to a higher risk for substance use.

Just like in any workplace, restaurant team members using alcohol or other drugs on or off the clock can chip away at productivity, profitability, and morale. Using the latest data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the National Safety Council estimates a business with 150 employees in California can expect substance use to cost more than $145K annually. (Get an estimate specific to your business size and region.)

But in restaurants, there’s more than money at stake when it comes to substance use in the workplace. Even a momentary lapse of attention in the kitchen can mean someone gets cut or burned. And the risk of death from overdoses is three times higher for people who work in food service than the national average.

If you think a team member may be struggling with these issues, having a conversation with them and connecting them with help could be lifesaving. It will also help protect your business from one of the biggest threats to the industry right now.

Here’s how to approach someone when you’re concerned about substance use:

Notice warning signs

In general, it’s a good idea to pick up on any sudden behavior changes and check in with team members about that. When it comes to substance use, possible red flags include:

  • Absenteeism
  • Vanishing during their shift
  • Lots of sick days
  • Accidents on the job
  • Confusion
  • Routine tasks taking longer than before
  • Sudden personality conflicts
  • Frequent hangovers
  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated pupils

Isolated incidents of any of these signs don’t necessarily suggest substance use. Health issues and personal problems affect people’s mood and behavior, too. But when you spot a pattern, it’s time to say something.

Image depicts two restaurant workers, one standing and one sitting, having a conversation.

Document performance issues

Pay special attention to shifts in performance, and write problems down so you can be specific when you talk. For example, keep track of lateness by noting the time and date. If a server is mixing up orders multiple times a shift, describe the incident and record the time and date. If a formerly neat and organized line cook leaves their station a mess, write it down.

Keep it private

When it’s time to have the conversation, find a safe and private space. The last thing you want is to be overheard or to fuel gossip. Your office can be a good choice. A neutral location like a park or coffee shop might work as well. Whatever venue you choose, make sure the team member is comfortable before you dive in.

Choose your words wisely

This isn’t one of those times to speak off the cuff. Think about what you’ll say in advance and decide on the terms and words you’ll use. suggests using the term “substance use” instead of “substance abuse” or “substance misuse” to avoid sounding judgemental.

Take care to avoid labeling or stigmatizing someone. Substance refers to alcohol as well as drugs, and the preferred clinical term today is “substance use disorder,” and not “alcoholic” or “addict.” Stick to person-first language. Try “I think you may be struggling with substance use disorder” instead of “you’re an addict” or “you’re a user.” Don’t conflate the person with the behavior.

Describe work performance

You could start a sensitive conversation like this by assuring the team member you care about them and want to help. Then say you’ve noticed changes in their work performance, and you are wondering if there’s anything going on with them they want to discuss.

Be specific, focus on documented performance issues, and don’t denigrate the person. Things like: “You have been late 4 times this month. It isn’t like you. What’s going on?” work better than accusations.

Be prepared for employees to deny there’s any issue at all. Don’t try to argue with them. Not everyone is open to accepting help. Still, having this conversation is important to bring performance issues into the open.

Go over your official policy

The employee handbook should have a section that outlines substance use guidelines. Typically, this policy prohibits use or possession of any illegal drugs, using alcohol or prescription drugs without a prescription at work, and working under the influence, among other things. Review this policy with the team member before you wrap up your talk.

Refer them to appropriate help

If they are open to it, you can help connect a team member with help. Ben’s Friends is a restaurant-specific resource for restaurant workers who want to get and stay sober. You can help them get to a local 12-step meeting or SMART recovery meeting. If your restaurant offers any mental health care benefits, encourage the team member to use them. And remember, time off for treatment may be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act or state laws. Check your local laws on the subject.

Image depicts two restaurant workers behind the bar, working separately.

Continue to track performance

Whatever the outcome of the conversation, continue to assess the team members’ performance. This can provide opportunities for positive reinforcement as they pursue treatment and get better. It can also tell you when you need to take different steps because their work performance continues to deteriorate.

What about medical and recreational marijuana?

As legalization continues, this can be a tricky area for employers. In Colorado the right to use medical marijuana is part of the state constitution. Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota forbid businesses from firing people on the grounds that they have a drug test that shows marijuana. Check out the Society for Human Resource Management for more on marijuana in the workplace.

Substance use is one of the most sensitive subjects you can face in the restaurant business, but having a thoughtful conversation with a team member can make a big difference to them and you. It’s worth overcoming the awkwardness and making the preparations to do it right. When you handle these issues with compassion and skill, it can help you hold onto team members, support their well-being, and build your reputation as a great place to work.