3 things employers should know about substance dependence

Human rights-based approach important first step in addressing issue

3 things employers should know about substance dependence
Credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley (Shutterstock)

It is time to get this right. Substance dependence is common and the stakes are high — too high to allow stigma and discrimination to continue to stop people from either coming forward for help or supporting recovery. A human rights-based approach to addressing substance dependence in the workplace is an important step in getting this right for everyone.

Here are three things employers should know when it comes to substance dependence:

Substance dependence affects everyone

Substance dependence is incredibly common: 21.6 per cent of Canadians meet the criteria for a substance use disorder over their lifetimes, according to the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey from Statistics Canada, which had 27,500 respondents. This means most of us have experienced or witnessed firsthand the negative impact this condition can have on individual health, well-being and relationships.

The impact on workplaces is also significant: Substance dependence may result in an increase in absenteeism, decrease in work quality and productivity, and an increase in workplace accidents.

There are also considerable economic costs: In 2002, the total annual cost of substance abuse on Canadian society was $39.8 billion, according to a 2006 study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, measured in terms of the burden on services such as health care ($8.8 billion), law enforcement ($5.4 billion), and the loss of productivity at work or home ($24.3 billion). 

Yet a majority of Canadians who are dependent on alcohol or drugs are employed — 73.3 per cent, according to the Canadian Community Health Survey. What does this mean for employers? It means there is a very high chance an employee may be struggling with substance dependence at their workplace.

Substance dependence is a disability

Unfortunately, a fear of stigma and discrimination often prevents people with substance dependence from addressing the problem and seeking treatment. This is the case even though it is an illness.

A dependence on drugs or alcohol (substance dependence) is defined as a disability, according to the Canadian Human Rights Act. This means when an employee is diagnosed with substance dependence, he has a right to be accommodated by his employer — just as anyone else with a disability.

“We want employers to approach substance dependence with the same understanding and compassion that would be extended to an employee with any other illness,” says Marie-Claue Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

There is a new guide to help employers

Employers have told the commission they need more tools, skills and knowledge to address impairment and substance dependence in a way that is in harmony with human rights. In response, the commission has developed a guide for employers so they know what to do if they believe an employee may be impaired at work and, more importantly, how to go about accommodating substance dependence in the workplace — while, above all else, ensuring workplace safety.

The purpose of the guide, Impaired at Work: A Guide to Accommodating Substance Dependence, is to help Canadian employers understand, first and foremost, that substance dependence is a form of disability protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act. This means when an employee is dependent on drugs or alcohol, an employer has an obligation to accommodate and support her recovery.

The guide takes employers and managers through the five-step process of what to do if they believe an employee is impaired at work or dealing with substance dependence — from how to start the conversation, to when to consider accommodation, to how to ensure job performance and workplace safety are not suffering.  And all of this should be done while still meeting human rights obligations.

It is not an employer’s job to diagnose an employee or know if he has a disability related to substance dependence — this is the job of a medical professional. And in order for accommodation to work, the employee must be willing to participate in the process and take responsibility for his recovery — which can be difficult because denial is often a factor.

Employers are encouraged to approach each employee’s situation on an individual basis, and to build accommodation, proactively, into the way they do business.

The commission’s guide also provides human rights considerations on another particularly complex issue: Drug and alcohol testing.

The guide also gets into detail about a particularly important part of the accommodation process: Requesting relevant medical information. This step requires the balancing of two competing rights: The employer’s right to manage the workplace and the employee’s right to privacy.

The guide provides guidance on how to balance these two rights, and identifies the roles and duties of employers and employees. It identifies the type of information an employer should provide the medical professional, and lists the questions the employer should ask the medical professional.

The guide also identifies situations when it may be appropriate for an employee to undergo an independent medical evaluation, and provides good practices.

Many of today’s employers are concerned about the possible impact the legalization of recreational marijuana might have on the workplace. They are seeking advice on how to address possible impairment and protect workplace safety and public safety. These are valid concerns, and these are complex issues.

But, at the end of the day, the goal of the commission’s guide is to help employers understand that when it comes to addressing possible impairment in the workplace — whether it is as a result of marijuana use, prescription medication or any other source of impairment — employers should follow the same steps and principles outlined in the guide.

Rebecca Gowan is a senior policy advisor at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa. She can be reached at rebecca.gowan@chrc-ccdp.gc.ca or (613) 286-3829. For the commission’s guide, visit www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca.

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