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Why should a workplace look at substance abuse issues?

The fact that some people use substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs, or that some people misuse prescription drugs is not new. The awareness that the abuse of substances may affect the workplace just as the workplace may affect substance abuse is, however, increasing in acceptance. Many aspects of the workplace today require alertness, and accurate and quick reflexes. An impairment to these qualities can cause serious accidents, and interfere with the accuracy and efficiency of work. Other ways that substance abuse can cause problems at work include:

  • after-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance
  • absenteeism, illness, 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 abuse by a family member, friend or co-worker that affects another person's job performance.

What will be covered in this document?

This document will discuss issues such as how substance abuse problems may affect the workplace, possible costs to a business, and how a business can address such issues.


In general, what are the effects of various types of substances?

CategoryExamplesExamples of General Effects
Alcoholbeer, wine, spiritsimpaired judgement, slowed reflexes, impaired motor function, sleepiness or drowsiness, coma, overdose may be fatal
Cannabismarijuana, hashishdistorted sense of time, impaired memory, impaired coordination
Depressantssleeping medicines, sedatives, some tranquilizersinattention, slowed reflexes, depression, impaired balance, drowsiness, coma, overdose may be fatal
HallucinogensLSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), PCP (phencyclidine), mescalineinattention, sensory illusions, hallucinations, disorientation, psychosis
Inhalantshydrocarbons, solvents, gasolineintoxication similar to alcohol, dizziness, headache
Nicotinecigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuffinitial stimulant, later depressant effects
Opiatesmorphine, heroin, codeine, some prescription pain medicationsloss of interest, "nodding", overdose may be fatal. If used by injection, the sharing of needles may spread Hepatitis B, or C and HIV/AIDS.
Stimulantscocaine, amphetamineselevated mood, overactivity, tension/anxiety, rapid heartbeat, constriction of blood vessels

(Source: Blume, S.B., Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety 4th edition, International Labour Office, 1998)


What are the costs to a business?

The economic impacts of substance abuse in Canada to businesses or industry have been traditionally difficult to measure. Many costs are hidden by general absenteeism or illnesses, "unnoticed" lack of productivity, or inability or reluctance to link substance abuse directly with causes of accidents.

In general, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA), reports that substance abuse cost the Canadian economy more than $39.8 billion in 2002. This figure includes costs for tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs.

CCSA also states that the largest costs are for:

  • productivity losses,
  • direct health care,
  • police and other types of law enforcement, and
  • other direct costs.

As such, costs to a business may be both direct and indirect. The impact of substance abuse that have been reported often focus on four major issues:

  • Premature death/fatal accidents
  • Injuries/accident rates
  • Absenteeism/extra sick leave, and
  • Loss of production.

Additional costs can include:

  • tardiness/sleeping on the job
  • theft
  • poor decision making
  • loss of efficiency
  • lower morale of co-workers
  • increased likelihood of having trouble with co-workers/supervisors or tasks
  • higher turnover
  • training of new employees
  • disciplinary procedures
  • drug testing programs
  • medical/rehabilitation/employee assistance programs

Are there elements of work that may contribute to abuse of substances?

Various and numerous personal and social factors can play a major role. In general, however, some work-related factors can include:

  • high stress,
  • low job satisfaction,
  • long hours or irregular shifts,
  • fatigue,
  • repetitious duties,
  • periods of inactivity or boredom,
  • isolation,
  • remote or irregular supervision and,
  • easy access to substances.

What can the workplace do?

Work can be an important place to address substance abuse issues. Employers and employees can collaborate to design policies which outline what is an acceptable code of behaviour and what is not. By establishing or promoting programs such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), employers can help troubled employees more directly or provide referrals to community services.

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. Pre-planning, as for many other occupational health and safety issues, is the best way to avoid confusion and frustration in times that are already difficult.

In addition, managers and supervisors should be educated in how to recognize and deal with substance abuse issues and employees should be offered educational programs.


What elements should be in a substance abuse policy?

A company substance abuse policy should emphasize that the program is confidential and be jointly created by both labour and management.

Elements of the policy would include:

  • statement of the purpose and objectives of the program
  • definition of substance abuse
  • statement of who is covered by the policy and/or program
  • statement of the employee's rights to confidentiality
  • that arrangements have been made for employee education (e.g., a substance-free awareness program)
  • that arrangements have been made for training employees, supervisors, and others in identifying impaired behaviour and substance abuse.
  • provision for assisting chronic substance abusers
  • outline of how to deal with impaired workers
  • if necessary, statement of under what circumstances drug or alcohol testing will be conducted
  • provision for disciplinary actions.
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Document last updated on June 15, 2008

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