How to Manage Employees Suffering From Abuse, Addiction and Other Hidden Maladies

Employers should talk to EAPs about helping employees with hidden challenges outside the workplace. Identify local public health and nonprofit agencies and share resources with employees seeking help.
By Sherry Genga
March 9, 2021

Employees are a valuable resource, and as individuals they each have their own lives outside of work. Unfortunately, maladies from outside life can adversely impact workplace attendance and productivity. Managers should be aware of changes in behavior that can indicate the employee is suffering from addiction, depression or domestic abuse.

While drug and alcohol problems have been in the forefront over the years, support groups in and outside many companies have brought help for employees. But identifying a domestic abuse situation may be more difficult to assess and offering support and assistance may be a sensitive matter. The latter is not a gender-specific problem and many times the individual will be resistant to admitting it is a crisis.

Outlined below are several indicators managers and supervisors may want to discuss with their company’s employee assistance program and other support services that may be available locally in the community. Indicators and potential mitigation methods that might trigger further investigation are also listed.

Be aware of employee isolation.

It may just be that the person is shy, but when they are chronically unwilling to go to company outings or socialize with coworkers, this may indicate they are dealing with internal issues or domestic abuse. If they ask for time off or call in sick in an uneven pattern, you might suspect they have had an upheaval at home and need to recuperate. Rapid weight loss, or showing signs of sleep disturbances, are good indicators of depression, drug, or alcohol abuse—or maybe they are just partying too often. They may become fearful or startled at simple noises, always looking over their shoulder. Regardless of the reason, this behavior should be explored as employees cannot be productive or safe if they are fatigued, fearful or distracted.

If managers are concerned about an employee’s productivity, have them look at facial expressions.

You may recognize a person’s trauma by their frown, eyes and body language. They may look depressed or anxious. They may have difficulty keeping up with their task or lag behind on projects. Extreme depression or hiding domestic violence issues often leads to suicidal thoughts and lack of regard for personal safety. You may create a buddy system in working colleague groups where they can become empathetic ears for a beleaguered person to vent. Human resources can create a funnel to a confidential Employee Assistance Program or other mental health professional that can be discrete and not impact the person’s employment security.

Should a manger notice an employee with signs of emotional distress, ask them to come to your personnel office for assistance.

Most likely, the person will be in denial and not come forth with any reason for their distress. Often, they will feel this will compromise their employment security, so it is best to have a policy in place that assures protection from dismissal due to “personal problems” and a discrete way to offer them either medical treatment or a support from a social services agency. Their coworkers who notice a dysfunctional behavior may either ignore it so as not to interfere or push too hard to get an answer from the employee. The best route is to have a policy whereby the coworker can discretely alert management (preferably human resources) to a problem without repercussion.

Listen to their discussions with other employees about their financial situation.

If they voice concern regarding lack of money to pay bills, the stress of lack of food in household or a spouse mishandling funds, it’s important to try to discover if this is from a chronic drug or alcohol behavior or an emotional problem with family members. Getting them to talk about their problem in a safe space is the first step but always should be done by a professional and not their superior.

Display posters in the workplace—including break rooms, bathrooms and or a hallway—that can offer help for addiction and domestic abuse.

Posters are an effective way of letting employees know that the employer cares about employees. Sharing contact information for the EAP, social service agencies, counselors and support groups lets employees know leadership understands the challenges. An employee may be embarrassed, worried, scared, feel alone and frustrated, but also may be relieved that someone is offering help.

If the human resource department gets a response from an employee in need, offer a resource list displaying contact information for local support groups, social service agencies and advocacy nonprofit organizations.

Providing reminders on how employees can seek help is another step toward acknowledgment. This information has a strong message for those who do not want to expose their situations. Explain the warning signs of addiction and/or an abusive relationship to them and offer ways to help and encourage them to shelter with friends or family if the situation is critical. If that is not an option, share information on safe houses in the area. But stress that their job is not in jeopardy even if they choose a treatment option. This will encourage them to review their options without stress or time constraint.

It is important to recognize that an employee could be the perpetrator and not the victim of abuse. The actions of employees can affect not only employees but also clients, customers and visitors. On occasion this could include threats, verbal abuse and physical assaults that could lead to bodily harm. By not having a protected environment in the workplace, the perpetrator could cause harm to others. Using the human resource department to approach the alleged abuser is the first step for a healthy environment in the workplace. Make sure they are well-versed in dealing with potentially disgruntled or emotionally challenged persons and have a plan of action to get them help. Find the resources to help the company deal with workplace harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behaviors and steer employees to organizations that can get them the help they need.


Domestic abuse and intimate partner violence are serious issues. In extreme cases, escalating domestic abuse can follow employees from home to the workplace. Human resources professionals and company leaders are encouraged to expand their efforts beyond respectful workplace training focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and anti-harassment. Employers are encouraged to talk to EAPs about helping employees with hidden maladies like substance misuse and domestic abuse. Proactive employers are identifying public health and nonprofit agencies in their communities and sharing resources with employees seeking help from these maladies.

by Sherry Genga
Sherry Genga is author of "The Shattered Oak, Overcoming Domestic Abuse, and a Misdiagnosis of Mental Illness." The book is based on a true story. Sherry wrote this true story of a family member who unsuccessfully tried suicide to escape an abusive marriage and eventually found help. The Shattered Oak book is available through booksellers everywhere or at Sherry is the Office Manager for Fuller Paving/Burn Oil in Marlborough CT. 

Related stories

Recruiting Women to the Workforce as Safety Consultants
By Sue Kuchler
As a safety consultant, Sue Kuchler enjoys collaborating with builders and contractors to help keep their employees safe, and leads as an example to recruit more women to the field or positions of safety management.
Investing in Interns Always Yields ROI
By Alexzondra Fleetwood
Where are they now? BELL Construction helps build bright futures by investing in internships.
Building TeamBuilder
By Patrick Hennessy
After experiencing chronic problems with workforce planning, Harkins needed an easy-to-use solution that would support not just staffing but training and development. So the general contractor designed and developed one itself.

Follow us

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Stay in the know with the latest industry news, technology and our weekly features. Get early access to any CE events and webinars.