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Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Know the Signs and Take Action

Takeaway: Substance abuse is not a private issue – it is a serious workplace hazard.

Substance use and abuse can be a touchy topic, but covering it is essential for workplace safety. Employees who show up to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol can make already hazardous jobs even more dangerous – and it can have serious consequences for them, their co-workers, and the business itself.

Here, we’ll help you understand the magnitude of the substance abuse problem and give you some tips for identifying and responding to substance abuse problems in your workplace.

Understanding the Substance Abuse Problem

Too often, we see substance abuse as an addiction or dependence. The truth is, it falls on a spectrum that ranges from infrequent recreational use to frequent and problematic use. And just as substance use varies, so too does the impact it has on user’s life at home and at work.

In Canada, the three most used and abused substances are alcohol, cannabis, and opioid pain medication. The statistics are shocking. A study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that Canadians consume 50 percent more alcohol than the global average and that we are the world’s second largest per capita consumers of prescription opioids. Every year, approximately 47,000 deaths in Canada are attributed to substance abuse, and 70 percent of drug and alcohol abusers are employed in some capacity.

While substance abuse is often thought of as an issue that arises and takes place in private life, there are a number of work-related factors that can contribute to it. These include:

  • High levels of stress
  • Situations that combine high demand with low control
  • Low job satisfaction or lack of growth opportunities
  • Long hours or irregular shifts
  • Repetitive duties or periods of boredom
  • Isolation
  • Easy access to substances

The Effects of Substance Abuse at Work

The statistics don’t lie: substance abuse is a big problem in Canadian workplaces. It’s not just about the estimated $40 billion it costs the Canadian economy every year, but the safety risks that accompany it.

Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while at work can have a significant effect on an employee’s judgment, alertness, perception, motor coordination, and emotional state. It can also negatively impact their ability to make sensitive decisions.

Studies have linked substance abuse to:

  • Increased workplace injuries
  • Absenteeism
  • Poor productivity
  • Increased job turnover
  • Decrease in morale and employee well being

While the economic impact of substance abuse can be difficult to measure, there’s no question that the issue has substantial direct and indirect costs for businesses such as:

How to Recognize Substance Abuse at Work

The first step to managing substance abuse in the workplace is being able to identify it. Those who know what to look for will be able to recognize signs that employees may be abusing drugs or alcohol and offer assistance.

The CAMH lists four C’s to help identify substance abuse:

  • Cravings
  • Loss of control (of frequency or amount of use)
  • Compulsion to use
  • Disregard for consequences

If you notice that a co-worker (or even a manager) is displaying some or all of the following behaviours at work, speak to your HR representative.

  • Hangover or withdrawal symptoms that affect job performance
  • Illegal activities (for example, selling drugs to other employees)
  • Frequent tardiness or unexplained absence
  • Extremely low productivity in the morning
  • Lack of concern about personal appearance and hygiene
  • Physical symptoms that include sweating, dizziness, bloodshot eyes, or sudden weight loss
  • Sudden defensiveness or overreaction to constructive criticism

4 Ways Employers Can Help

For a comprehensive approach to workplace health and substance abuse to succeed, both employers and employees must buy into it. Let’s look at what employers can do to support employees who are struggling and maintain a work culture free of substance abuse.

1. Foster an Inclusive Environment

Alienating workers who are struggling with substance abuse issues will only make the problem worse.

It’s critical that employers create an inclusive workplace environment that breaks down the stigma so often associated with substance use and reinforces the fact that all employees must be treated as equals. This encourages employees to seek out help and speak openly about their struggles without fear.

2. Create and Implement Substance Abuse Policies

Having clear policies and procedures in place is essential for handling substance abuse issues consistently and effectively.

Begin by assessing how workplace practices could influence the risk of substance abuse issues and develop a plan that helps mitigate this risk. Collaborating with employees during this process can help ensure that everyone acknowledges and agrees to abide by acceptable workplace behavior.

Policies could address:

  • Substance use at the workplace (including off-site company events)
  • Recognizing troubled employees
  • Support for treatment and recovery

At DCM, for instance, we have a policy making it clear that even workers whose jobs carry a lower risk (such as office work or dealing with paperwork in the on-site trailer) are forbidden from using prohibited substances while on the clock.

Our policy also takes into account the risks associated with permissible substances. Workers who take prescription medication that could affect their work performance or jeopardize their safety (for instance, by inducing drowsiness) must disclose this to their supervisors, who will then make any necessary accommodations.

3. Encourage Peer Support

Employees often form bonds, and co-workers can be a strong source of support for someone who is struggling with a substance abuse issue. Encouraging peer support mechanisms in both formal and informal ways could be beneficial to workers who need help or accountability to become and remain sober.

4. Train Supervisors to Offer Proper Support

Identifying the problem is not enough; supervisors must also be able to offer support as necessary. Training supervisors to give them the skills needed to intervene and make appropriate referrals empowers them to take action to address the safety risks associated with substance abuse in the workplace.


Substance abuse isn’t a choice; it’s an illness. Employers are legally obligated to accommodate workers experiencing a substance abuse issue. And those who do so in a practical, informed way will reap the benefits. From better performance, improved safety, and higher retention rates to employee mental health and wellness, there really is no downside to taking this issue seriously.




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