Supervisors play a key role in identifying substance abuse problems


Alcohol is a legal intoxicant used by the majority of Finns. In principle, the employer does not have the right to interfere in the leisure activities of its staff, but in situations where the use of intoxicants during free time affects work, intervening is justified. It is the supervisors’ responsibility to not hesitate to ask questions if they are concerned about an employee's behavior. According to Sanna Eronen, Chief Occupational Health Psychologist at Terveystalo, it is respectful and caring to be open and direct about an issue, but intervening in another person’s behavior is something that most people prefer to avoid. Even though speaking up is difficult, postponing the discussion poses a much greater risk.

Esihenkilöt päihdeongelmien tunnistamisessa.

Substance abuse problems may manifest themselves through various signs. The signs may be quite vague and make the supervisor wonder if they should be concerned about the employee. There may be changes in the employee’s general alertness and conduct, making it hard for them to be as efficient at work as before. They may also have had more sickness absences than usual. In order to prevent possible substance abuse from becoming a major problem, supervisors must know how to raise the issue at an early stage.

In addition to subtle signs, the supervisor may notice signs of substance abuse during the employee’s free time or at work-related events. For example, the employee may often call in sick after a night out or a company Christmas party. The most obvious signs of substance abuse at the workplace include smelling of alcohol or constantly appearing hung over or even intoxicated.

“In order to be able to bring up difficult issues, the work community must have established an atmosphere that supports difficult discussions. Supervisors should ensure a positive relationship that encourages dialogue with the employees before problems arise. One clear way, for example, is to regularly review your company's substance abuse prevention model with your work community. This way, everyone will have the courage to speak to the supervisor if they have concerns about a colleague,” says Eronen.

How do I express my concern?

Eronen emphasizes that the most important thing in speaking up is preparation.  

“Make sure you thoroughly understand what you're worried about so you know how to put it into words. The employee needs to understand what the feedback is about. Seek reassurance by discussing the matter in advance with the HR Director and your supervisor.”

In the discussion, the employee must be given the opportunity to explain the situation in their own words. Sometimes, new information may arise, making it important to correct your initial assumptions.

“Instead of a debate, the discussion should take the form of interaction where the manager is expected to be able to actively listen. If the employee disputes everything, ask them to give their views on the situation in their own words and focus on agreeing on the next steps.”

Active listening* is:

  • Receptive. The listener considers the message important and meaningful.
  • Focused. The listener thoroughly focuses on the issue.
  • Respectful. We hear the speaker as they are.
  • Patient. The listener trusts that the speaker will open up when they are ready.

Simply expressing your concern can often ignite the internal motivation to make things right. Even if the employee denies everything during the discussion, it may act as an incentive to make changes in their life. 

“Expressing concern means caring about the employee's well-being. Referral for treatment or setting other boundaries always gives the employee a chance to make changes,” says Eronen.

More support for supervisors to address substance abuse problems

Terveystalo has revised its treatment model for substance abuse problems, which is now supported also by coaching for supervisors. The coaching helps supervisors address substance abuse problems at the workplace. The coaching offers supervisors information and tools to identify substance abuse problems, speak up and take action at an early stage. The coaching is suited for supervisors of workplaces of all sizes and can be completed completely remotely when it best suits your schedule.

Online coaching for companies

Terveystalo’s online coaching supports the management, work community management, work ability and well-being of your company. The coaching provides valuable information and practical tools effortlessly and at a low threshold directly from top experts in the field. All of our coaching is available completely remotely, making it possible to offer consistent coaching to your entire organization's staff. Coaching is available for supervisors, HR decision-makers and employees of organizations of all sizes. We use information to turn healthy employees into healthy work communities, and healthy work communities into successful companies.

Online coaching for supervisors

Participate in our ‘Substance abuse at the workplace’ online coaching or ask for a quote for your staff. Information and practical tools for supervisors to identify substance abuse problems, speak up and take action at an early stage. Suitable for supervisors of organizations of all sizes.

Read more

Read more articles

Lyhytpsykoterapiaa Terveystalossa Article

Low-threshold mental health services for better work ability

Mental health absenteeism among staff in the ELY Centres, TE Offices and KEHA Centre had increased and there was a need to address this risk quickly. Solutions to manage the mental stress of staff were sought through low-threshold mental wellbeing services and brief psychotherapy in occupational health, and the importance of mental wellbeing was emphasised internally in the organisational culture. Low-threshold wellbeing services are now well established, easy to find and with positive user experiences. In addition, there was a significant reduction in psychological symptoms among participants in brief psychotherapy and a corresponding increase in perceived psychological well-being.

Ville Iho Article

The best occupational health care in the world is a €24 billion issue for Finland

Finnish occupational health care has been built up over the years by employers and employees, who also finance it almost entirely (employers about 80%, employees 20%). Occupational health care covers more than 1.9 million Finns of working age, whose health and fitness for work are crucial to the success of Finland as a whole, to its competitiveness and to the maintenance of a welfare society. Occupational health is an absolutely central part of our health care system; in addition to its specific role in balancing the growing burden of public health care, it does so in an internationally unique way and with excellent results.

Janina Achrén Article

Musculoskeletal disorders absenteeism down 13% in 2022 - What finally made the ship turn around?

I remember well a drawing I made in my notebook during my specialisation. I drew a stick figure running along the line; a stick occupational physiotherapist. The line I drew depicted the transformation of occupational health and working life over the last couple of hundred years; from the industrial revolution, the early days of occupational health and factory doctors, to the Occupational Health Act of the 21st century and the large teams of occupational health specialists. While occupational health had developed by leaps and bounds along the way, our working lives and environments had changed even more rapidly. Despite the leaps and bounds, the stick occupational physiotherapist was still constantly one step behind, often only involved when the problem had already arisen. I wrote the question under my drawing; when will occupational health get to the point where we walk alongside the workplace and see what is coming, so we can prevent it? My stick occupational physiotherapist had to wait a good decade for that answer...

Eveliina Holmgren Article

Successful labour migration requires everyone's contribution

The Finnish government has set a target to double the amount of labour immigration by 2030. This means that the aim is to attract around 50 000 workers from abroad to Finland over the next seven years. After that, it is hoped that around 10 000 people a year will move to Finland for work. As immigration for work increases, it is important to ask what this means for everyday work and what changes the diversity of the workforce will require of managers.

Koronarokotus olkavarteen Article

Covid-19 booster vaccinations started at Terveystalo

During February, the Covid-19 booster vaccination can be obtained from Terveystalo in numerous locations. Vaccination locations include e.g. Espoo, Helsinki, Vantaa, Kirkkonummi, Kotka, Pori, Rauma, Turku, Tampere, Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Lahti, Vaasa, Kouvola, Oulu and Rovaniemi. We will start vaccinations in other cities according to demand, and up-to-date information on all vaccination locations can always be found on our website.

Ilari Richardt Article

Health information is needed for successful work ability management, but what is health information and how should it be protected in an organization?

The most important tasks of occupational health are the prevention of illnesses and maintaining work ability. This can be achieved when information about the health of the staff is available. However, information always goes hand in hand with data protection.