HR Strategy

A Guide for Employers on Substance Use in the Workplace 

February 6, 2024

Substance use in the workplace 

  • Identifying substance use in the workplace or among remote workers mitigates risks and threats to health and safety. 
  • Addiction is a disability that requires employers to accommodate on a case-by-case basis. 
  • Your organization’s commitment to overall wellness is essential to making an employee feel comfortable seeking help for their addiction. 

What is substance use? 

Cheers! What holiday gathering is complete without a toast? Well, maybe we should rethink that. Winter is a time to celebrate holiday festivities with friends, family, and co-workers, but holiday parties often include alcohol that may trigger unhealthy behaviours for some, including your staff. The holidays are not a jolly time for everyone, and some people turn to substances to cope with stress, loneliness, or family conflict. Substance use may be prevalent throughout the whole year, but the unique stressors of holidays can worsen it. 

It’s important to understand what substance use is before trying to address it. Substance use includes the use of alcohol, legal drugs, illegal drugs, prescription medication, or over-the-counter medication that affects how an employee thinks, feels, or acts. These substances can be prescribed or used casually for pain management or in social settings. Substance use may occur more often during personal time, yet the consequences can affect the workplace, threatening the health and safety of employees. Even where substance use may not be cause for immediate concern, employers can take active steps to reduce the associated risks. 

According to the Life in Recovery Survey in Canada, “Perceived stigma or discrimination was reported by 48.7% of respondents during active addiction.” Stigma in the workplace can act as a barrier to receiving the necessary support. The good news is that there are initiatives employers can implement to address this stigma. Openly addressing the idea of substance use can help mitigate any stigma present in your workplace. Increased awareness on this topic can help create a safe place for those who are struggling to speak up and ask for support. Initiatives that focus on prevention help protect employees from the harms of substance use. 

Each person’s challenges with substance use are unique and require an individualized approach. This guide discusses how you can educate employees on substance use, and how you can support those who struggle. 

How to approach substance use in the workplace

It’s difficult to enforce rules without a rulebook. It is irresponsible to simply tell your employees to arrive “fit for work” without helping them understand what that means. A written Substance Use Policy (Drug and Alcohol) communicates your organization’s expectations on substance use in the workplace. Substance use policies should highlight workplace risk factors that may contribute to substance use, such as shift work, high-stress tasks, remote and unsupervised work, and long hours. Although substance use may happen more often outside the workplace, the consequences can threaten the health and safety of all employees and customers if impairment lasts while employees are working. Substance use can result in physical or mental impairment, which increase the risk of workplace incidents and accidents. Consider routinely communicating this policy throughout the year, especially before the holiday season begins. If you need help creating substance use policies, our HR experts are here to help. Book a free demo of our services and browse dozens of policy templates and documents live. 

Substance use and remote workers 

Remote work arrangements pose a unique challenge for employers managing persons struggling with substance use. The lack of direct interaction can make noticing signs of impairment harder, so provide leaders with training on what to watch for. Behavioural and physical symptoms—lack of concern for personal appearance, low productivity in the morning, glassy or red eyes, sudden defensiveness when given feedback, and frequent unexplained absences—are worth noting, but never jump to conclusions. It’s important to remember that an employee exhibiting one or more of these signs is not necessarily suffering from an addiction; you should always fulfil your duty to inquire. Address each circumstance case by case. Ensure that your health and safety plan for substance use covers all employees, including those who work remotely. 

Introduce accommodation plans for substance dependence disabilities 

When substance use results in addiction, it is a disability, requiring employers to accommodate where necessary to the point of undue hardship. Having a clear Human Rights Policy provides employees with information on their rights and the accommodation process. The main goal of this policy is to create an inclusive and barrier-free work environment for all employees. It is crucial to spot signs of substance use and inquire further without making assumptions. Some behaviours may have other explanations. However, if you suspect an employee is struggling with substance use, you should fulfil your duty to inquire and talk to them about possible accommodations. For example, if an employee’s night shift schedule is triggering the use of substances to stay awake, which in turn is affecting their productivity or their health and safety at work, assigning the employee to a day shift may help. There are other types of accommodations, including removing high-stress responsibilities and offering short-term or long-term sick leaves. Any accommodation plan also needs to include regular reviews. Accommodations should be tailored to the needs of the individual, so the plan should change if their needs change. 

Facilitating a safe space to talk about addiction helps reduce its stigma. As a leader, you are responsible for approaching the issue in a respectful, collaborative, and timely manner. You might need to have multiple conversations with an employee; some people with a substance use issue may not recognize or admit it right away, and relapse is a common element of addiction and recovery. When speaking about addiction, be compassionate and non-judgemental, and communicate that the conversation is confidential. Use non-blaming language, do not raise your voice or show anger, and listen to their explanation of their needs. 

How to help employees with substance use 

Substance use may be influenced by personal challenges, but the workplace may be part of the issue. An organization’s commitment to overall wellness plays a large role in employee mental health. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Policy promotes your organization’s dedication to supporting people with various types of challenges. EAPs and similar programs provide access to counselling, assessments, referrals, and training to support employees with addiction (among other challenges). Having free programs accessible to all employees makes seeking help easier. Knowing that their workplace cares and supports them may be the encouragement and confidence employees need. Remember, such programs are only part of a comprehensive wellness plan. 

Your wellness plan should also have a Company Events Policy that discusses intoxication. Your organization’s view on substance use at social events should be clearly communicated with your staff. Not serving alcohol at company events embraces the ability to socialize without alcohol and eliminates consequences of intoxication like feeling unwell, poor decision-making, and driving under the influence. Prohibiting substance use of any kind can also make someone recovering from an addiction feel more comfortable attending. Decisions like this promote inclusion. However, if serving substances is preferred, establish strict guidelines and best practices. Monitor alcohol consumption by placing a drink limit for each employee rather than an open bar. Also, if you have reasonable grounds to suspect that a person is impaired, arrange safe transportation for the employee. These are just some of the many best practices used to help promote a healthy and safe work environment and culture. Having the necessary support resources and policies helps optimize your organization’s comprehensive wellness. 

Dealing with substance use in the workplace 

No one should have to struggle on their own. Your organization’s culture, dynamics, and practices all influence overall employee health. Let’s dismantle the stigma around substance use by providing safe and healthy spaces for progress, individual accommodation plans, and initiatives that promote comprehensive wellness. The holidays may be a cheerful time for most, but we should remember those who are struggling and devise measures to make their season a little merrier. 

If you’re looking to enhance your company policies, we’ve got you covered! You can book a free demo with one of our HR experts at a time that fits your schedule. They’ll guide you through our extensive library, which includes hundreds of surveys, checklists, and documents, and show you how easy it is to customize our templates and training courses to meet your HR needs. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to streamline your HR processes and take your company policies to the next level! Book your free demo today!