How to handle addiction in the workplace
This is a really good question and one we learned a lot about a recent seminar on Addictions in the Workplace at Fasken Martineau.
What is addiction? Dr Baker, our speaker that day, defined addiction as a “Pathological relationship with a mood altering activity with life-damaging consequences. A disease of the brain, caused by genetics, exposure, environment and/or psychological state, which interferes with health, relationships and psychological status.”
What may come as a surprise is that, according to Dr. Baker, depression or stress in the workplace shouldn’t be handled any differently to an addiction such as alcoholism. They both fall under the category of an Invisible Disability.
What is an Invisible Disability?
- Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) in the workplace
- Such disabilities as Depression, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Insomnia, etc.
- Generally difficult to diagnose
- Often have stigma and judgment attached to them
Interesting statistics about substance use and work
- 5.3% of workers use at work
- 4% – 14% use tranquilizers
- 11% of fatal workplace accidents involve alcohol, 6% – 9% involve other drugs
- Workers with alcohol problems are almost three times as likely to have a time loss injury
- 70% of people with addictions are still employed
What makes addiction so tough to diagnose?
- Cover-up by self and others
- Denial/inability to recognize the magnitude of negative consequences
- Masquerades as other problems, e.g. stress, depression, etc.
- Workplace and health personnel feel uncomfortable
How is it different from abuse?
- Abuse is voluntary whereas addiction/dependence is involuntary
- With abuse (often a one-off or occasional instance) there’s no duty to accommodate, but with dependence there is; by the time it shows up in the workplace, it’s probably in the mid to late stages of dependence
Signs and symptoms of addiction at work
Dr Baker reinforced that it is the employer’s responsibility to manage attendance, performance behaviours and safety. If employers detect any differences and/or cause for concern they must address them as soon as possible rather than wait to try and determine if problems are due to substance abuse.
It is the employer’s responsibility to manage the following:
- Attendance Management
- Track overall attendance
- Are there any trends? (e.g. absent after long weekends, vacations, pay periods)
- Extended or unusual absences
- Attendance issues will often show up before performance issues do
- There could be no impact on performance
- Performance could actually improve either due to certain substance use or as a result of over-compensating in this area
- Poor performance is often the last sign of a problem
- Watch for signs of change in behaviour and attitude (e.g. erratic behaviour and/or any noticeable overall change)
- Employee may begin to move away from supervision
- If they were collaborative previously that may stop, or they may request shifts opposite supervision (e.g. graveyard shifts)
- Especially, in safety sensitive positions, workplaces shouldn’t wait to act
- Important to have a standardized approach
While employers don’t have the right to know the actual diagnosis; they CAN ask the following:
- Does the person have a diagnosis of disorder?
- Are they fit to do their regular duties?
- Are there recommended restrictions or accommodations on the job?
- Is treatment required?
- When it’s time to go back, can they be safely at work?
- What is the prognosis? When are they likely to be fit to return to work?
- Is monitoring an option?
- What are the costs associated?
How would a smaller organization put into place a Substance Use Disorder policy?
The most effective tools for managing addiction and substance use in the workplace are precise and comprehensive polices/procedures.
What does your employee handbook state at the moment? Would you consider a policy that covers all of the invisible disabilities instead of being specifically about drugs and alcohol? Also consider your stance if you are an employer who, for example, serves alcohol at lunch sometimes. It’s difficult to have a policy about alcohol if you serve it to your staff.
If you have any questions or would like to talk to us about any other HR issues don’t hesitate to contact us.