Language Matters When Discussing Substance Use Disorder

Language Matters When Discussing Substance Use Disorder

As small business owners and supervisors, you have a vital role in helping employees facing substance use disorder. Recent advice from Penn State Health highlights the importance of positive conversations and support. The advice below will help you to foster a culture of understanding and assistance.

Use A Positive Attitude:

Make sure your supervisors undergo training to identify and record signs of impairment, ensuring that discussions can progress smoothly. Initiate follow up conversations with care, avoiding negativity and judgment. Create an open and non-judgmental environment to encourage employees to seek help.

Choose the Right Words:

Use language that avoids stigma, using person-first language, like referring to individuals as "persons with substance use disorder." Foster a compassionate atmosphere by steering clear of negative terms, like abuser, junkie, alcoholic, drunk, and addict.2

Recognize Relationship Impact:

Substance use disorder doesn't just affect an individual's health; it also has repercussions on relationships. Small businesses should be aware of the potential impact on workplace dynamics and be proactive in offering support. There may be others within your organization willing to serve as peer support.

Take Swift Action and Provide Resources:

It’s important to act promptly to direct employees to relevant clinics or recovery-oriented organizations. Explore work-based assistance programs to offer accessible routes for treatment. Ensure that your employees know how to access your EAP for support.

By promoting positive conversations, using supportive language, and taking prompt action, small businesses can create an environment that supports employees facing substance use disorder. Embracing these principles contributes not only to individual well-being but also cultivates a workplace culture of empathy, understanding, and support. Remember, positive change starts with a conversation, and as a small business owner or supervisor, you have the power to make a difference in the lives of your employees.


  1. Penn State Health News. (2023, September 20). The Medical Minute: Stay positive when talking with people with substance use disorders - Penn State Health News.
  2. Words matter - terms to use and avoid when talking about addiction | National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023, December 20). National Institute on Drug Abuse.