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How to Accommodate for Addiction in the Workplace

In Canada, substance abuse disorder or addiction is classified as a disability or a condition that can render an individual incapable of completing full time or any amount of work for a given period of time. The terms substance abuse, substance dependence, and addiction are often used loosely and interchangeably to refer to anyone with a history of or an existing harmful relationship with drugs and alcohol.

What does this mean? In this article, we’ll delve deeper into workplace addiction and what Canadian employment rights expect from both employers and employees in the context of an accommodation plan for substance abuse. 

Addiction as a Disability

Basically, an employee struggling with addiction cannot be immediately terminated and discriminated against. On the contrary, he or she is entitled to the right to be accommodated by their employer. This puts addiction in the same category as other treatable or manageable medical conditions, similar to a physical or mental disability (i.e. a bodily injury, congenital disability, or a learning disorder).

A potential addiction in the workplace is usually confirmed through one or two of the following scenarios:

  • The employee voluntarily disclosed the information.
  • An observation of the employee exhibiting symptoms of addiction. 
  • A positive drug or alcohol test to which the employee agreed to undergo.

If the employee denies the disability, the employer can discuss the consequences of committing negative behaviours at work and deal with the matter accordingly, as the company policies suggest.

Young man drinking whiskey while working

What Does an Employer’s Duty to Accommodate Involve?

To accommodate workplace addiction, the employee, the employer, and the employee union, if any, are all expected to cooperate and agree to find the most reasonable terms for all parties involved. 

Based on the Canadian Human Rights Act, the duty to accommodate suggests that employers are required to make the necessary adjustments to the organization’s current rules, policies, or practices to prevent any form of perceived or actual discrimination and make the workplace inclusive for those with disability.

In the case of addiction in the workplace, employers must approach the issue with utmost care and concern. While an employer should put in their best efforts to accommodate an individual’s specific needs, they should also veer away from doing anything that would draw too much attention and stigmatize the employee with addiction. The fear of stigma is one of the biggest reasons why many people opt to suffer in silence and refuse to seek substance abuse treatment. 

Disability is one of the grounds of discrimination prohibited by the Canadian Human Rights Act. Others include race, age, and sexual orientation.

Accommodating Workplace Addiction

While an employee diagnosed with addiction has the right to be accommodated to the point of undue hardship, it does not mean that all their requests will be entertained. As mentioned earlier, the accommodation must be reasonable for all parties involved.

Ideally, accommodating workplace addiction should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It should be a collaborative effort between the employer, employee, and the employee union. For the best results, everyone should have an open mind and be flexible to all plausible solutions.

The main goal of accommodation is to keep the employee at work or provide them with the necessary support to help them get back on their feet until they are fit enough to return. However, all of this is not possible if the employee refuses to cooperate or participate in any part of the process, take responsibility for their actions in the workplace, or turn down a seemingly reasonable accommodation solution.

Types of Accommodation Solutions

There are countless ways for employers to accommodate addiction in the workplace, depending on the variables involved. Here are some examples:

  • Implement temporary or permanent changes in the employee’s work schedule to attend out-patient rehab or individual therapy and counselling sessions.
  • Approve short-term or long-term sick leave to enable the employee to check-in to an in-patient or residential addiction treatment facility.
  • Adjust employee hours or workload requirements while the employee is in treatment or recovering.
  • Allow access to employment assistance programs (EAPs).
  • Reassign the employee to a different position to minimize stress levels or other potential risk factors that could lead to relapse.

Individual counselling session

How to Prepare an Accommodation Plan for Addiction

Addiction is a serious health concern that isn’t going away anytime soon, hence, it only makes sense that employers should have an accommodation plan for workplace addiction in place that can be referred to if necessary.

Here are some critical items that the accommodation plan should include:

  • Be a written/printed document
  • Signed by all parties involved (employer, employee, and representatives of the union)
  • Specify the accommodation solutions that have been agreed upon, such as sick leave length, work schedule, job restrictions, etc.
  • Make way for any type of addiction treatment the employee requires, which means allowing time off from work to pursue urgent or on-going treatment
  • Consider the possibility of a concurrent disorder like a mental illness that requires separate accommodation, such as the need for dual diagnosis treatment

Return to Work Agreement

Upon completing treatment and implementing the accommodation plan, the employee and employer can discuss the conditions of their return to work agreement. It’s a written document signed by both parties outlining what is expected from the employee in terms of behaviour and work ethics when they return to work. It may include specific conditions about the following:

  • Attendance
  • Compliance with workplace drug and alcohol policy
  • Performance metrics
  • Safety concerns 

In some cases, employers include drug or alcohol testing and relapse prevention agreements to ensure treatment progress.

Nonetheless, the return to work agreement must not include sensitive details of the employee’s addiction treatment plan and should remain confidential. Employees are not obligated to disclose more details of their drug or alcohol addiction treatment than what’s necessary to help them create an accommodation plan, such as schedule and treatment duration.

Do You Need Expert Advice on How to Handle Workplace Addiction?

Freedom From Addiction is a substance abuse treatment facility near Toronto. We have years of experience and a team of certified addiction specialists who can provide consultation, out-patient assessment, and counselling therapies for anyone in your team.

Get in touch with us today!


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