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Should you ever discuss drug use at work? Our experts weigh in

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Recreational drug use is on the rise, and as marijuana becomes legalized in more states, it’s a less taboo topic than ever before. According to a new survey on recreational drug use by Serenity at Summit, more than half of people said they’ve actually discussed their drug use with coworkers. Taking it to the next level, 57% of respondents who talked about drugs said they actually consumed drugs with their coworkers.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has a sobering report for employers that cites 70% of the 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs, are employed. Drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, and legal liabilities to name just a few.

Marijuana is the most commonly discussed drug in the workplace, followed by painkillers and amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, according to the Serenity at Summit study.

While it’s important to foster an open environment in the workplace, there can be some serious consequences to oversharing your drug use to a coworker. For one, those discussions aren’t always comfortable: employees surveyed said they’re more uncomfortable discussing drugs than salary, mental health, and discrimination.

The most uncomfortable discussions to have at work
The most uncomfortable discussions to have at work

It can be even more damaging to your professional reputation as you could be seen as incapable of taking on more responsibilities. For women, the ramifications were worse: 32% of women reported losing their job after discussing drugs at work, compared to just 17% of men.

So why discuss it at all? According to the study, 80% said they talked about drug use because their coworker brought it up first. But workers should tread lightly, says Caroline Cenzia-Levine, career expert with SixFigureStart.

“I would include drug use in a list of topics like religion, politics, and romantic relationships – just steer clear because the downside greatly outweighs the upside,” she says.

Cenzia-Levine says that talking about these topics could signal you want to open up to your coworker, but be prepared for it to not be perceived in the way you intend.

“The downside is that the other person doesn’t want you to open up and considers you a nuisance, or, even worse, the other person could feel very differently and very strongly about the subject,” she says.

For managers, all workplaces should have clear and transparent guidelines around expectations, says Dr. Lynne Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C. Regardless of whether you think drugs are being abused, she recommends basing all conversations on behavior.

“As the boss, it’s your job to evaluate if your employee is getting the job done and behaving appropriately—not to assume that it’s based on drugs or alcohol use, but to focus your discussion on behavior and helping to identify useful resources,” she says.

If you feel you need to reach out for help with drug or alcohol addiction, Lindsay Brancato, a clinical psychologist based in Virginia, says workplaces need to set boundaries to create a safe workplace for all.

“It is important to draw boundaries in the workplace in order to keep the work environment safe and productive,” she says. “Clearly communicating expectations and consequences, and letting employees know if the workplace allows for them to reach out with any challenges without fear of punishment, might encourage those who need it to utilize whatever resources are available, while being able to maintain employment.”


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