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Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Duties, Policies, and Accommodation Strategies

accommodation health and safety mental health May 30, 2024
Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Duties, Policies, and Accommodation Strategies


Substance abuse poses significant challenges to employee health and productivity across workplaces small and large. Substance use-related harms cost Canada $49.1 billion in 2020, and almost half of that was attributed to lost productivity costs.1 Many of these costs are borne by employers. Costs can come from increased absenteeism and presenteeism, sick leave, long- and short-term disability, insurance claims, costs associated with damaged equipment, premature deaths, and more.

Not only do employers face a financial burden, but they also have a responsibility to reduce hazards in the workplace and support employees experiencing substance abuse issues. To fulfill their duties and build stronger, healthier workplaces, employers should understand their role in managing employee impairment and develop policies that support prevention and accommodation.

*Note that the information provided on this website does not constitute legal advice and is intended for general informational purposes only. We cannot adjudicate on employment decisions in your organization and share the following only as an examination of the topic from an Occupational Therapy perspective.


Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Substance abuse is defined as an overindulgence or dependence on an addictive substance. Typically, substance abuse refers to inappropriate use of alcohol or prescription and non-prescription drugs. When someone becomes dependent on these substances, they lose control over their use. The Canadian Human Rights Commission uses the term “substance dependence” to refer to previous or existing addiction or dependence on alcohol or drugs. In Canada, from 2007 to 2020, 40% of all substance use costs were associated with alcohol, 23% with tobacco, 14% to opioids, and 5% to cannabis.1

Various personal, mental, and social factors can play a major role in why a person may choose to use a substance. Workplace hazards can also contribute, according to new research from the Institute for Work & Health. Researchers have found that workers who previously experienced a work-related injury demonstrate higher rates of opioid-related harms compared to the general population.2 These findings suggest that injury prevention at work is particularly important, as this can result in workers being prescribed opioids for pain.


Signs of Employee Impairment

The Canadian Human Rights Commission describes the appearance of impairment at work as: “odor of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurring, poor coordination.”3 The Commission also describes the following characteristics:

  • Personality changes or erratic behaviour (e.g. increased interpersonal conflicts; overreaction to criticism)
  • Working in an unsafe manner or involvement in an incident
  • Failing a drug or alcohol test
  • Consistent lateness, absenteeism, or reduced productivity or quality of work

The Commission notes, however, that these behaviours can also be attributed to a number of other factors that may be temporary or short-term. Distraction, inattention, or making inappropriate decisions at work may be related to family or relationship problems, fatigue, trauma, or other medical conditions or treatments. It’s important to observe, but not assume.


How to Manage Employee Impairment

While each situation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, in general, employers should always consider the safety of the individual and others. Consider:

  1. Job Safety: Assess whether the impaired individual can safely perform their job or tasks. For example, if the job involves driving, operating machinery, or handling sharp objects, impairment could pose a significant risk to themselves and others.
  2. Cognitive Ability and Judgment: Determine if impairment is affecting the individual's cognitive ability or judgment. Impairment can impair decision-making skills and reaction times, potentially leading to accidents or errors in the workplace.

Immediate action is necessary if impairment is suspected in an employee in the following situations: 1) an employee is involved in a workplace accident or near accident, 2) their behaviour or performance is having a serious impact on the workplace, or 3) the employee’s behaviour puts their own safety or the safety at others at risk.4


Accommodating for Substance Dependence

Substance dependence is considered a disability under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which means employers have legal responsibilities to accommodate affected employees. This means individuals who have, or are presumed to have, an addiction or substance dependence can’t be treated differently at work (in recruitment, hiring, during the course of employment, or at termination).


The Duty to Inquire

Recognizing that individuals suffering from addiction may not readily acknowledge their need for rehabilitation or support, human rights law mandates that employers make reasonable inquiries when there's suspicion that an employee's behavior at work may be influenced by substance dependency. Addressing concerns and complaints regarding impairment at work, even if uncomfortable, is crucial for ensuring a safe work environment and identifying if the duty to accommodate is triggered. Note that, in conversations with employees, employers should not try to diagnose substance dependence or recommend treatment.

If the employee does not disclose substance dependence, the employer should clearly outline the consequences of the employee’s behaviour and deal with the attendance, performance, or other behaviour issues according to workplace policies.


The Duty to Accommodate

The duty to accommodate requires employers to adjust the workplace or working conditions to successfully meet the needs of an employee’s disability, up until the point of undue hardship. Safety is often raised as the basis for undue hardship. If the employee with substance dependency can continue to work safely with adjustments made to the work or workplace, employers should look at accommodation solutions. Some examples include:

  • Changes in the employee’s hours or schedule to allow for treatment or regular meetings with sponsors or healthcare professionals
  • Short-term or long-term sick leave to allow for treatment
  • Re-assignment to a position that is not safety-sensitive
  • Modification of the employee's job tasks or responsibilities to minimize exposure to triggers or situations that may exacerbate their dependency

As with all accommodation plans, employers should follow up with employees to determine if any adjustments need to be made. As relapse is often a characteristic of substance dependence, an employee’s situation may evolve and will require ongoing flexibility and communication.

Note that treatment plans are not accommodation plans. They are individualized, confidential plans between the employee and their doctor and do not involve the employer. The employee is only required to provide the employer with enough information about the treatment plan to develop an accommodation plan.


Policies to Implement Around Substance Use

Comprehensive policies around substance use balance disciplinary action with supportive action. They help employers manage risk in the workplace while also reducing stigma and abiding by human rights legislation. Employers should ensure their policies cover:


1. Education and prevention measures

Employers should set clear expectations about their guidelines for substance use in the workplace to minimize ambiguity and promote responsible behavior. Additionally, they can offer workplace education and training sessions to raise awareness of substance dependency issues, signs of impairment, and available support resources for both employees and managers. Facilitating peer support networks can also be beneficial, providing opportunities for employees to connect with peers who have experienced similar challenges or can offer support during recovery.


2. Impairment and use of substances at work

The legalization of substances, such as cannabis, does not give employees the right to be impaired at work. Employers have the right to develop policies on zero tolerance of use during hours of work. Policies for off-duty drug or alcohol use may apply to safety-sensitive positions in regulated industries. In most cases, however, employers should focus solely on how substance use affects job performance, behaviour, or workplace safety. Generally, drug and alcohol testing is permissible only in specific circumstances. If an employee’s behaviour during their free time outside of work does not affect the workplace, you are not entitled to ask about it, and the employee is not obligated to discuss it.


3. Determining and responding to suspected impairment

Employers should provide training to supervisors on recognizing signs of problematic substance use, handling crisis situations, and referring employees to appropriate programs and supports, such as an EAP program or Occupational Therapy. Ensure supervisors understand the workplace's impairment policy and legal considerations, including employee confidentiality.


4. Actions to support accommodation and return-to-work of employees with addictions

Employers should ensure that they have protocols in place to provide the support and follow-up their employees need. Healthcare providers such as Occupational Therapists can assess worker function and develop appropriate accommodations for employees with substance use issues and other mental health concerns. They can also help develop structured return-to-work plans to support recovery and reintegration back into the workplace.


How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

If an employee is struggling, make a referral or contact us to learn more about individualized mental health support or accommodations support to help your team stay healthy and at work. We also provide Manager Mental Health Training to train leaders on best practices for supporting employees in distress. If you have a large group of leaders requiring training, contact us to learn more about customized group training. To learn more about substance abuse challenges in the workplace, join our membership where you can watch our exclusive webinar on this topic!



[1] Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Harms. (2020). Canadian Substance Abuse and Harms.

[2] Institute for Work & Health. (May 2024). Exploring how workplace solutions can mitigate opioid harms among workers.

[3] Canadian Human Rights Commission. (February 1, 2017). Impaired at Work – A guide to accommodating substance dependence.