Addictions and the Workplace

Addiction is not an easy topic to delve into, and in the workplace most of us would rather sit a little lower in our cubicles that broach a conversation with a co-worker we think may be struggling with drugs or alcohol. Yet despite the reluctance, there will come a day when many of us will need to face it.

Whether you’re a Human Resource professional being asked to approach an employee smelling of alcohol or a business owner who has been seeing a pattern of unsafe behavior, addiction is an issue that may one day land in your lap.

There’s also the chance that you, yourself, may be one of the 10% of people who experience a substance use disorder (NIDA – 2009). If you have already been diagnosed with a mental disorder you’re twice as likely to experience a substance use issue. And if you have a family history of addiction, you are not only more likely to also experience a substance use disorder, you’re also likely to have an opinion about this health issue.

And yet, despite the many celebrities and politicians heading in and out of rehab, there is a reason for cautious optimism with regard to addictions and the workplace.

What Does Addiction Look Like?

Like many other mental health issues, addiction and substance abuse isn’t always easy to detect, but the signs are usually there. As a manager or supervisor, it’s your responsibility to manage performance at work. If you see any of the following signs, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to start a conversation.

Look for changes in:

  • Physical health
  • Eating habits
  • Personal appearance
  • Sociability (withdrawal)
  • Errors, quality of work, accidents
  • Punctuality
  • Response to new tasks and familiar tasks

You may also notice increased mood swings, blaming or angry outbursts.

Of course, it’s not a given that an employee who displays these behaviours is experiencing an addiction or a mental illness. Often, fatigue, physical/mental health issues or other life pressures can present themselves in a similar way.

Best Practices: It Starts with a Conversation

There is a lot of discussion about the ethics of drug testing in the workplace. But what drug testing doesn’t do is help you determine whether an employee is able to work in a healthy and safe way. In most situations it helps to take a step back to consider the policies and processes you have in place to promote workplace health. You may also want to take a couple of steps in and start a conversation with employees you think may be struggling.

Here are some of the ways organizations can create a positive work environment that minimizes their risks related to substance use and the workplace (Excerpt from: Bette Reimer, A Substance Use and the Workplace: Ways to increase well-being and reduce risk):

  • Enhance practices that promote well-being and reduce risk of harm and injury.
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures on substance use and safety issues. Areas to address include alcohol and other drug use related to the workplace, how to recognize troubled employees, and support for treatment and recovery. Regularly review how workplace practices might influence risk and make changes to minimize the risk. Encourage individual responsibility and safety. For example, discourage drinking on-site after work hours, practice responsible hosting at workplace social events, conduct regular safety audits and attend to all factors related to safety.
  • Build an environment of inclusion.
  • Engage employees in identifying concerns and issues related to the work environment. Involve employees in developing policies and guidelines. Develop communication mechanisms that keep employees informed, and that also provide avenues for employee input and for acknowledging their input.

Provide Information

It’s important to provide the key information to employees about how their benefits plan, community programs (many of these are free), and other resources exist to help them manage their own health. By informing them and providing them with these tools they can make better choices and if needed, changes to their behaviour. It’s a way for your organization to assess and mitigate risks; improve productivity and enhance employee engagement. In a world and workplaces filled with high stress levels and ongoing change, it’s also the right thing to do.

Free Resources About Addictions and Mental Health:

Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division:

Here to Help BC:

Community, Government or Social Services – BC211: or call 211
•    Problem Gambling Help Line: or call 1-888-795-6111
•    Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service: or call Lower Mainland: 604-660-9382, BC: 1-800-663-1441

Health Link BC: or call 811.