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5 Things to Know as the Boss of an Addict

Addiction affects anyone, no matter their age, gender, education, or occupation. The workplace is not an exception. An unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol can negatively impact an employee’s level of concentration, productivity, and performance at work, leading to devastating consequences, such as personal injury, property damage, or putting other teammates’ safety in danger. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, more than 400 Canadians were hospitalized due to harm caused by alcohol or drugs in 2017 to 2018—more than the number of hospital stays for heart attacks and strokes combined.

An employee with addiction problems can also affect the company’s morale and finances due to absenteeism, low productivity, frequent violation of policies, or exhaustion of available resources. In Canada, the estimated annual cost of productivity lost to addiction and substance use disorders is $11.8 billion.

As an employer, confronting an employee with addiction may seem like a daunting task. You run the risk of overstepping personal boundaries and unintentionally offending the person involved. Nevertheless, you should address the issue sooner, rather than later. 

In this article, we share five important measures that can potentially help you handle the situation professionally and empathetically. Let’s get started:

1. Identify Warning Signs of Addiction in the Workplace

Early recognition of addiction means sooner intervention and access to treatment. People struggling with substance abuse usually show a wide range of physical and behavioural symptoms, which may include:

  • Bloodshot or watery eyes and dilated pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteady gait (without injury) 
  • Hyperactivity
  • Episodes of restlessness, shaking, or tremors 
  • Reporting to work smelling of alcohol or weed
  • A sudden social withdrawal from friends and colleagues
  • Excessive tardiness and absenteeism without advance notice or credible excuses
  • A pattern of rapid surge and decline in work productivity
  • Sudden unreliability to show up for scheduled meetings and appointments
  • Frequent work-related errors due to lack of concentration, poor judgement calls, or the inability to recall details or instructions
  • Mood swings and signs of aggressions towards co-workers
  • Gradual neglect of personal appearance and hygiene

These characteristics do not automatically indicate that an employee does have an addiction, but they do call for closer monitoring to pinpoint the root cause of such behaviours. 

Man in a white shirt and black hoodie looking dishevelled and depressed

2. Addiction Is a Medical Disease, Not a Moral Failing

Addiction is a sensitive topic that employers should be empathetic toward when approaching an employee. Before initiating this complicated conversation, they must educate themselves first that addiction is a treatable brain disorder, not a moral failing that should be taken against an individual.

The stigma surrounding substance abuse is why many people are ashamed and reluctant to seek alcohol or drug addiction treatment, even when they are suffering. “I’m calling for a culture change in how we think about addiction,” former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told The Washington Post. “Unless we eradicate the negative [stereotypes] . . . we won’t create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help.”

This is why it’s imperative to effectively communicate that, first and foremost, you genuinely care about your employee’s health and well-being, not just their performance at work. Taking a gentle and non-accusatory tone during your conversation will prevent them from feeling prejudiced or persecuted, particularly if they are in denial that they have a substance abuse problem. It’s also important that you raise these concerns in a private, safe space where they will feel comfortable opening up knowing that what is discussed will stay confidential.

An employer upset with an employee at work

3. Consult Your Company Substance Abuse Policy

Addiction is a health crisis that isn’t going away anytime soon, hence, every employer should have a substance abuse policy to serve as a guide in dealing with such issues. This may include:

  • A clear definition of terms about what the organization classifies as substance abuse
  • Potential signs of addiction that employees should be aware of
  • Support and benefits available to employees
  • Steps that will be taken to detect and investigate cases of workplace addiction, for example, drug and alcohol testing

Ensure that all employees are aware of your company’s substance abuse policy and that they can readily access it at all times.

4. Educate Yourself About Employment Laws

Substance abuse is recognized under the Canadian employment laws as a disability or a condition that can render an employee incapable of completing work to its full extent or at all. This means that unlike in other countries where they can easily fire people, Canadian employers are expected to assist and accommodate an employee with addiction “to the extent of undue hardship.” 

The degree of assistance varies depending on the company and the situation, but essentially, it requires employers to consider addiction as a form of medical illness that can be treated and overcome, rather than an automatic cause for termination. On the other hand, an employee with addiction being accommodated by their employer must commit to substance abuse treatment and comply with other written performance guidelines specified before given a chance to return to work.

To be clear, accommodating an employee with addiction problems does not mean tolerating or excusing inappropriate behaviour. Employers can still terminate individuals who refuse to get addiction treatment and continuously act untowardly in the workplace.

5. Provide Easy Access to Treatment and Support Groups

Helping an employee recognize that they have an alcohol or substance abuse issue and acknowledge that they need professional help to get better is already a significant step that can pave the way for their successful recovery and sobriety. You can offer a list of plausible solutions during your conversation by directing them to the nearest private or public rehab, addiction counsellors, or addiction support groups within the area. 

Three people sitting on chairs during a group counselling session

Employers can also partner with addiction treatment centres to help them resolve issues of substance abuse within the workplace. Freedom From Addiction is an exclusive recovery home-based in Aurora, Ontario, located less than an hour away from Toronto. We have an excellent team of healthcare professionals and addiction specialists with experience and expertise in: 

For more information about our drug and alcohol addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly. Contact us today!


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