January 30th 2023


Happy January everyone!

I know, it’s a difficult month to navigate for certain. On top of the fact that we have been living in unprecedented times with a worldwide pandemic (hopefully wrapping up) we are in the most depressing month of the year! As such, sometimes we rely on outside influences to battle the depression, frustration and sadness that can sometimes follow the upbeat Christmas season.

Unfortunately, turning to alcohol and other substances can interfere with our workplace.

Many aspects of the workplace require alertness, accuracy and quick reflexes. An impairment to these qualities can cause incidents, and interfere with efficiency and safety of our fellow co-workers.

Being impaired can be the result of many situations (including fatigue and stress). Situations where substance use may result in issues at work include:

  • Any substance that impacts a person's judgment, alertness, perception, motor coordination or emotional state that also impacts working safely
  • After-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance
  • Illness or injury
  • Absenteeism and/or reduced productivity
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration
  • Illegal activities at work including selling illicit drugs to other employees,
  • Psychological or stress-related effects due to substance use by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects another person's job performance.

Substance use is often thought of as an addiction or dependence, but actually can be anywhere on the spectrum or scale from recreational to frequent to problematic. As a result, there are varying impacts on lives and work. A person may use a substance casually for years with no progress to harmful use, may be at different points of the spectrum at different times, etc.

Because of this spectrum, employers should consider if there is a risk to the individual’s safety or the safety of others. For example, while impaired:

  • Does the person have the ability to perform the job or task safely (e.g., driving, operating machinery, use of sharp objects)?
  • Is there an impact on cognitive ability or judgement?

Remember - In a workplace, it is not the employer’s role to diagnose a person as having a substance use disorder, but to be aware of signs that use may be an issue.

What are the effects of various types of substances?

The following table is a general summary of common substances and their effects.

Note if the substance is used by injection, the sharing of needles may spread Hepatitis B, or C and HIV.

Photo by PWW

Sometimes habitual use of substances can change our brain function and structure so that there is no control over the need to use substances, regardless of the possibility of harm. These changes to our brain function may result in a health condition called “Substance use disorder”.

Substance use disorder is a medically diagnosed condition, not a choice, weakness, or moral failing. The risk of substance use disorder and how fast a person becomes addicted varies by substance. Some substances, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause the disorder more quickly than others.

Substance use (addiction) is not a choice. When a person is affected by substance use disorder, they crave the drug, and are not concerned about its harmful effects. The drug becomes the focus of their feelings, thoughts, and activities.

Substance use disorder is actually very complex, and people develop the disorder for many reasons, including:

  • Events in life, especially trauma or chronic stress
  • Environmental factors
  • Mental well-being (emotions, thoughts, feelings, mental illness, etc.)
  • Genetics and biology

These reasons and physical dependence make it hard to stop using substances.

Substance use disorder is a treatable medical condition. No one chooses to become addicted.

Understand that when an individual seeks help or treatment, this journey may have many routes, and healing may take some time. Recurrence is common.

How does this affect the workplace?

The economic impacts of substance use in Canada to a workplace or industry are traditionally difficult to measure. Many costs are hidden by absenteeism or illnesses, lack of productivity, or inability or reluctance to link substance use directly with causes of incidents.

Costs to a business may be both direct and indirect. The impact of substance use that have been reported include:

  • Safety (fatalities, incidents, etc.)
  • Absenteeism/sick leave/turnover or presenteeism
  • Loss of production
  • Workplace violence and harassment.

Additional costs can include:

  • Tardiness/sleeping on the job
  • Theft (e.g., money, items taken for resale)
  • Poor decision making
  • Loss of efficiency
  • Lower morale and physical well-being of worker and co-workers
  • Increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers or supervisors
  • Disciplinary procedures
  • Drug testing programs
  • Medical/rehabilitation/employee assistance programs
  • Training of new employees

Elements that can contribute to the use of substances

Various organizational, personal and social factors can play a major role why a person may choose to use a substance. In general, however, some work-related factors can include:

  • High stress,
  • High demand/low control situations,
  • Low job satisfaction,
  • Long hours or irregular shifts,
  • Fatigue,
  • Repetitious duties,
  • Periods of inactivity or boredom,
  • Isolation,
  • Lack of opportunity for promotion,
  • Lack of, remote, or irregular supervision and,
  • Easy access to substances.

What can the workplace do?

The workplace can be an important place to help address substance use issues. Employers and employees can collaborate to design a management of impairment policy which outlines what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

The main goal is that workplaces are encouraged to establish a procedure or policy so that help can be provided in a professional and consistent manner. It is important for supervisors and managers to have a resource or procedure that they can rely on if the need arises. Employees need to know that everyone will be treated the same way. These actions help to reduce the stigma associated with substance use. When stigma is reduced, it is hoped that people will seek help without fear, and will speak openly about substance use issues. Early treatment and support are encouraged.

Remember, Substance use disorder is a medically diagnosed condition, not a choice, weakness, or moral failing.

Please seek out help if you find that you are having trouble dealing with a situation, from both a medical professional and your employer.


Darla Henderson

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