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Spotting Signs of Addiction in the Workplace

Addiction in the workplace is an issue that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. In Canada, approximately 21% of the population (around 6 million people) will suffer from some form of substance abuse in their lifetime. Unfortunately, not everyone will receive appropriate treatment for their alcoholism or drug dependency due to stigma or the waitlist length for public rehab centres.

Regardless of the nature of your business, addiction at work should never be taken lightly. When left unaddressed, it can lead to severe consequences, from hampering work productivity due to absenteeism to causing irreversible damages like occupational injuries and fatalities.

In this article, we offer several suggestions on how to spot signs of addiction in the workplace plus tips on the next steps you can take to accommodate an employee struggling with substance abuse

Potential Signs of Addiction at Work

Most people show a variety of symptoms depending on the substance that they are abusing. In some cases, the indication of possible substance abuse may not be apparent at first, especially for those with daytime jobs. However, there are sudden behavioural changes that employers should be wary of. These include:

  • Unexcused tardiness and absenteeism
  • A progressive decline in personal hygiene and physical appearance (i.e. sudden weight loss or gain, dishevelled look, pungent odour due to alcohol or illicit drugs)
  • Preference for isolation and withdrawal from their usual circle of friends at work
  • Errors and accidents while performing work-related tasks
  • Confusion and inability to recall details from meetings and instructions 
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to hold a steady gait
  • Taking unnecessary risks that jeopardizes their own and other colleagues’ safety
  • Showing up for work undeniably high or still hungover from the previous night
  • Mood swings, irritability, aggression, and erratic behaviour leading to frequent conflicts among co-workers

Although these negative behaviours are not definitive signs of addiction, employers should still look for plausible explanations that may have caused them. It could be caused by a medical condition, which, like addiction, is also considered a disability. The employee may be dealing with extreme stress levels due to work conflicts or personal problems at home. 

It’s best to talk to them respectfully and privately to see how you can accommodate their concerns to prevent making unsupported assumptions about your employee.

A man stressed outside his place of work

Commonly Abused Substances’ Symptoms of Addiction

As previously stated, people can exhibit a wide range of symptoms depending on the substance they are addicted to. Here are some substance-specific warning signs to watch out for:

Spotting Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is, by far, the most commonly abused drug in Canada. At least 18% of Canadians met the criteria for alcohol addiction, and 20% of drinkers consume above Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. From 2015 to 2016, around 77,000 hospitalizations were entirely caused by alcohol, comparable only to 75,000 hospitalizations due to heart attacks that year. 

A huge red flag for alcohol addiction in the workplace would be an employee who drinks excessively, gets uncontrollably wasted, or shows up already drunk to office parties and other events where alcoholic beverages are being served. 

Other signs of alcohol dependency include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • The smell of alcohol on the breath and skin
  • Secretively drinking alcohol during lunch breaks 
  • Preferring to drink alone
  • Having frequent temporary blackouts
  • Occasional memory loss
  • Sluggishness or sleeping while on duty
  • Shaking and tremors when not intoxicated 

An employer speaks to an employee about addiction in the workplace protocols

Spotting Signs of Marijuana Addiction

When it comes to drug addiction in Canada, marijuana, also known as cannabis or weed, tops the list. Based on the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, 4.4 million or 15% of Canadians used cannabis in 2017. Of that population, 37% said they used cannabis for medical reasons.

Marijuana can be used and sold legally in Canada, so it’s not surprising to see that it’s one of the most accessible drugs that could be causing addiction in the workplace. In the U.S., a 2014 survey shows that around 1 in 10 people has shown up in the office high on weed

Common signs of marijuana addiction are:

  • Red or glassy eyes
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Severely dried mouth and throat
  • Irritated respiratory system (from smoking)
  • Impaired coordination
  • Paranoia
  • Impaired cognition
  • Anxiety
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Relaxed state that’s almost drowsy or hyperactivity, depending on the dose taken and individual response to the drug

Spotting Signs of Cocaine Addiction

The Global Drug Survey in 2019, led by Dr. Adam Winstock and his team in London, found that Canada ranks second in the world for cocaine use. Researchers asked 1,960 Canadians how many days they used cocaine in the last 12 months. The majority reportedly use half a gram of cocaine every 10 days, almost once a month or close to double the average answer worldwide of six days a year. 

People who are addicted to cocaine build their tolerance by increasing the dosage they consume to get high. As a result, they become dangerously addicted to this illegal drug. 

Symptoms of cocaine addiction to watch out for include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose or damaged nasal passages from snorting drugs
  • Scars or any skin marks due to injecting cocaine
  • Burnt lips or fingers from smoking cocaine
  • White flecks or powder in the nostrils
  • Restlessness
  • Nervousness
  • Aggressiveness

How You Can Help An Employee with Addiction

The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination and considers addiction as a disability. This means employers cannot outrightly fire someone experiencing substance abuse issues. On the contrary, they are required by law to accommodate addiction in the workplace by providing the necessary adjustments and support to allow them to seek adequate addiction treatment.

Freedom From Addiction is an addiction treatment centre near Toronto, Ontario. To get expert advice from our team of specialists about addiction in the workplace, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.


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