Substance abuse equals absenteeism: Broad-based workplace initiatives required

Substance abuse is considered a disability under human rights legislation and requires accommodation.

It should be no surprise that substance abuse has an adverse effect on the Canadian workplace.

Several Canadian studies — including research done for the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse — have revealed that seven to 22 per cent of workers report using alcohol on the job.

However, conclusions regarding the relationship between substance abuse and absenteeism need to be approached with caution as much of our understanding has been influenced by research based on subjective self-reports, originating in the United States and other countries. In addition, research continues to be hampered by inconsistent definitions and measures across studies, and a lack of controls.


Absenteeism includes unplanned absences and tardiness, as well as those who are absent while at work by not attending to their tasks, returning late after breaks, being away from the worksite or frequently leaving the job early.




Several organizations have made significant progress in defining the relationship between substance abuse and absenteeism. There is general agreement that substance abuse has a negative influence on many aspects of work performance, including absenteeism.

A 1992 national Gallup survey of full-time workers found that absenteeism was perceived to be the most frequent consequence related to substance abuse; 55 per cent indicated that their workplace was “greatly affected” or “somewhat affected.”

A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse estimated annual productivity losses in Canada due to substance abuse at $6.8 billion for tobacco, $4.1 billion for alcohol and $823.1 million for illicit drugs. Taken together, all forms of substance abuse account for $11.8 billion in lost productivity.

Finally, research for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that reviewed the pre-employment tests of U.S. postal workers and the corresponding absenteeism rate after 1.3 years showed that those who tested positive for illicit drugs had a 60 per cent higher rate of absenteeism when compared to those who tested negative at the time of hire.

Substances that pose the greatest threat and whose prevalence in the workforce has the potential to affect work are tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription medication.

Various studies have shown that there is a definite link between absenteeism and the use of these particular substances. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission provided evidence in support of a relationship between alcohol consumption and absenteeism in Canada.

The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse also conducted research indicating that increased absenteeism among heavy drinkers resulted from increased illness, hangovers and disciplinary consequences.



Substance abuse problems are considered a disability under human rights legislation. As such, employers have a duty to accommodate, which typically includes granting the employee time off to participate in treatment of the substance abuse problem.

Even in situations where a substance abuse problem and related absenteeism constitute a significant performance issue, employers do not have the legal right to terminate an employee.

The duty to accommodate underlines the need to provide employees with an opportunity to explain their poor work performance or misconduct before disciplinary action is taken.

Some overt signs of a possible substance abuse problem include observable changes in the employee’s mood, motivation, behaviour, reliability and productivity. In addition, changes in concentration, reaction time, memory, problem solving and changes in personal appearance may also be signs of a substance abuse problem.

If an employee is exhibiting any work-related behaviours that suggest a substance abuse problem, it is recommended that the performance problems be addressed directly. Regardless of any suspicion of substance abuse, concerns should be focussed on work performance, expected changes and available options for help.

Addressing substance abuse and its many consequences, including absenteeism, requires broad-based and integrated workplace initiatives that:

•increase manager awareness and skills related to prevention, early identification and early interventions;

•raise employee awareness about the use of alcohol and other drugs including tobacco;

•assist employees and their families in developing skills and resources that can help resolve problems that can contribute to risks associated with substance abuse;

•support a drug-free workplace, and alcohol-free social activities; and

•provide employee resource material on a wide range of health issues.

There is little doubt that substance abuse has a significant impact in the Canadian workplace. Although not completely understood, the negative influences that substance abuse has on absenteeism is also highly apparent.

Not only are there direct employee absenteeism costs, but there are the added costs associated with the employer’s attempt to reduce the negative impact on the workplace and the costs related to colleagues who must compensate for an employee’s lower performance.

An employer’s ability to proactively address substance abuse issues is an important component that will help to influence the rate of absenteeism in the workplace.

Stephen Kennedy is the director of workplace interventions at the Halifax office of FGI (Family Guidance International). He can be reached at 1-888-557-1711 or [email protected].

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