Dealing with employee addictions

Supporting an employee who is struggling with a substance addiction can be a huge challenge for many employers, and it is a challenge that’s not going away. Statistics Canada reports that one in 10 Canadians report symptoms consistent with substance dependency. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reports that substance abuse and addictions cost the Canadian economy $24.3 billion dollars in lost productivity. Add in the costs of substance dependency beyond lost productivity such as increased healthcare, cost of police involvement and workplace theft (in some cases), and higher workplace turnover and the associated costs of recruitment and training for replacement workers, and that number increases to $39.8 billion.

While substance abuse is clearly not a new phenomenon, many employers struggle with how to best support an employee with a potential dependency issue, and what is required in terms of assistance and accommodation.

Have a policy
Given the prevalence statistics of addictions, every employer will have to deal with a substance dependency issue at some point. Accordingly, organizations should ensure that there is a substance abuse policy in place along with their other human resource policies.

This policy should spell out what is considered substance abuse, the expectation of drug and alcohol use as it impacts the workplace, what will happen if an employee is impaired at work, how employees dealing with substance abuse will be assisted, and what is expected of employees with a substance abuse problem, as well as a statement of the employee’s rights to confidentiality.

Organizations should make their substance abuse policy accessible to all employees, and make sure that all employees are aware of the policy.

Know the signs
Often, substance dependency is not overt and first appears in the workplace as performance or attendance issues. Organizations should help their people leaders recognize some of the warning signs of a potential dependency issue. Here are just some of the signs:

  • increase in casual absences, especially on Mondays and Fridays;
  • extended lunch breaks, long absences from the work station, consistently late arrivals to work or early departures;
  • falling productivity or missed deadlines;
  • presenteeism, or difficulty with task focus or concentration;
  • stories of family discord or dysfunction;
  • change in appearance;
  • changes in attitude, increased irritability; and
  • increased accidents at or away from work, errors in judgment.

Support sources
A suggestion of accessing an organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) can be used as an initial discussion by an employee’s supervisor when substance abuse or dependency is suspected.

The EAP can provide counseling services to both the employee and their family, and connect the employee with additional resources in the community as needed.   Dr. Ian Altman, executive director of employee assistance services for Manitoba Blue Cross says a key element for support in the workplace is for employers to have adequate, credible resources available so that employees can self-identify a substance problem in its early stages.

Many EAPs offer self-help resources for employees who are starting to feel that they are losing control of their substance use, or that their substance use is adversely affecting their work or home life. EAPs can also provide support and guidance to people leaders as they work through this issue with their troubled employee. Some employee benefits programs may also offer coverage for treatment programs or specialized counseling through the program’s extended health benefit.
When an employee can no longer be at work due to an addiction, many employees apply for disability benefits through the employee benefits plan. Both employers and employees should be aware, however, that some disability policies require that the disabled employee participate in an inpatient or residential treatment program in order to be eligible to receive disability benefits for an addiction or substance abuse problem under the policy.

In many provinces, residential treatment is not easily accessible, having significant wait times, and accessing private residential rehabilitation or substance treatment can come with a high cost that is only partially covered by the employee benefits plan—if at all.

This can pose a real problem for an employee who is accessing an outpatient program as their treatment, or while he or she waits for access to a residential program. Some employers have sick time or salary continuance programs that can accommodate these scenarios but these benefits and programs vary between industries, and often, role in the company.

Employers should ensure they understand the eligibility criteria for substance dependency treatment under their policy, and have a plan to deal with those employees who do not meet the criteria but are still participating in treatment.

Legal matters
Substance abuse is recognized under employment law as a disability, and accordingly, employers need to assist and accommodate these employees before terminating their employment.   As a result, many employers struggle with the extent to which they must accommodate these employees.   In Canada, employment law requires accommodation “to the extent of undue hardship.”

This term can mean different things for different employers, especially in more safety sensitive workplaces where an impaired employee is putting other employees at risk.

What is universally clear is that this accommodation requires active participation on the part of the employee.   An employee being accommodated for substance abuse has to commit both to treatment and to the accommodation plan.

Additionally, substance abuse does not excuse bad behavior.

Canadian courts are increasingly taking a hybrid approach when it comes to cases involving substance abuse: the culpable aspect of a situation in which an employee knew what he or she was doing was wrong but did it anyway, versus the non-culpable, where an action is attributable to the addiction. An employee who does not behave properly and respectfully in the workplace, or who refuses treatment can be terminated with cause, regardless of their substance addiction.

Return to work action steps
When the employee returns to work after treatment, or as the terms of accommodation are being removed, employers should provide the employee with written performance guidelines and expectations, along with the consequences should these guidelines and expectations not be met.

Employers should also schedule regular followups with the employee, a key element of a successful return to work. Employers should expect relapses, and understand that relapse is a part of treating addiction.

Because performance management challenges involving substance abuse can be very complex, it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer specializing in employment law for guidance.