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Identifying substance abuse in the workplace

May 29, 2024
By Mia Barnes

Credit: Getty Images/ wildpixel

Substance abuse is more than just a health issue. It’s a multibillion-dollar economic predicament that should concern business leaders.

This condition adds an unnecessary burden to Canada’s overextended health care system. However, higher-risk use of and addiction to legal and illegal substances have a more significant impact on productivity in dollar terms. It can lead to presenteeism, absenteeism, long-term disability and premature death. HR professionals and C-suite executives should take this matter seriously to help save lives and minimize losses.

What to look for

Only a clinician can diagnose someone with substance use disorder. Still, you can determine whether an employee may need support if you know the signs. The red flags can be physical, behavioural, financial or interpersonal.

People struggling with substance abuse tend to experience noticeable changes in physical appearance. Having bloodshot eyes is a usual indicator because it’s typically due to lack of sleep and other lifestyle factors linked to substance abuse.


Declining personal hygiene is another. Individuals with this mental health disorder may neglect themselves. They might come to work without looking presentable due to poor grooming.

Moreover, an unsteady gait may indicate that someone’s central nervous system has been affected by substance abuse, impacting their motor skills and coordination. Shaking may suggest they are under the influence of a substance or going through withdrawal.

Behaviourally, people living with substance use disorder can be extremely moody. They may display unexplained annoyance, anger, restlessness or euphoria. This condition can also result in a decline in work performance. Uncharacteristically committing errors and getting involved in multiple workplace accidents are causes for concern.

Sustaining a substance addiction can be expensive. An employee suffering from it may frequently borrow cash from colleagues or approach a supervisor for salary advances.

Regarding interpersonal signs, it’s not uncommon for people experiencing substance use disorder to exhibit difficulty communicating with others. They may struggle to articulate their thoughts, manifest slurred speech and lack focus.

People may get into fights with co-workers due to their mood swings when substance use gets out of hand. They may also distance themselves from others as a way to hide their addiction or the challenges it causes. It makes the situation worse, for it can deprive them of the intervention they need to recover.

In the United States, the official death figures due to opioid-related overdoses could be as much as 30 per cent less accurate because of social isolation. Many cases of mental health disorders can go unreported when sufferers withdraw from social interactions.

Reporting is everything

Addressing substance abuse in the workplace requires cooperation from all. This condition affects everybody’s health and safety, so you should encourage your organization’s members — from rank-and-file employees to the higher-ups — to be observant and report any signs they notice as soon as possible.

Perceptions of substance abuse are subjective, so train your team accordingly. You should raise awareness of the condition to dispel the stigmas surrounding it. Giving your staff adequate knowledge and skills empowers them to recognize addiction’s indicators.

Use this opportunity to create a culture of safety, empathy and support. This way, everyone will know what to do if they suspect someone of grappling with substance use disorder.

Policy review may be in order

Substance abuse is a fluid issue. Stay current with the latest studies and news on this issue to inform your decision-making when reviewing and updating your company policies.

A good substance abuse policy should reflect fresh insights and adapt to the ever-changing regulatory environment surrounding this matter. It should cover sensible guidelines on alcohol and drug use, proper testing procedures, reasonable violation penalties and viable intervention options for those who may need support.

Furthermore, your legal obligations should shape your policy. Take relevant local, regional and national laws into account. Only when you factor in all legal considerations can you observe a healthy balance between workplace safety and employee confidentiality.

Interventions for various individuals

Encouraging your employees to be empathetic and supportive toward co-workers is vital to make your office a warm and nonjudgmental environment for people dealing with substance use disorder. However, anyone who is mentally unfit needs to speak with a counsellor.

An employee assistance program (EAP) is an effective short-term intervention. It enables employees experiencing a mental health crisis to confidentially talk things through with a qualified professional online or in person anytime. Make a point to promote your EAP since many individuals who need it may disregard it.

Consider teaming up with external organizations concentrating on substance use and addiction for guidance. They may give you access to additional resources to deliver more meaningful and sustainable employee support.

Make substance abuse management your business

Losing a single life to substance abuse is tragic. It’s even more unfortunate when that life belongs to a capable employee whom you have come to know and built a relationship with. Move mountains to help your team members struggling with substance use disorder overcome their demons and set them on the path to recovery.

Mia Barnes is the editor-in-chief at Body+Mind

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