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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Substance Use

The monster we work with

MaryAnne Arcand

Reprinted from the "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), pp. 7-9

There’s a monster at your workplace that nobody wants to look at. Everybody knows it exists. That it’s big. It’s ugly. And it’s dangerous. We’d rather cover our eyes and pretend it’s not there. Maybe we’ll peek out once in a while to see if it’s gone away yet. The bad news is that it’s not going anywhere. As a matter of fact, it’s growing!

We don’t want to know it’s there—because with knowledge comes responsibility. In this liability-conscious age, however, employers cannot get away with pretending they don’t know there are substance abuse and addictions issues in their workplaces. “What I don’t know won’t hurt me” just doesn’t cut it for employers or supervisors.

The monster takes its toll

A recent report commissioned by the BC Forest Safety Council found that problem substance use on the job among Canadian workers averages from 10% to 30%, depending on the industry.1 According to statistics from the 2004 Canadian Addictions Survey, self-reported use of all categories of illegal drugs in BC is higher than the national average.1

The cost of problem substance use in the workplace is enormous. Lost productivity, treatment for addiction and addiction-related workplace injuries and fatalities are all very costly. A 2007 study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimates that substance abuse across the general population costs the economy:2

  • $24.3 billion a year in lost productivity because of death or illness

  • $8.8 billion a year in health care costs

  • $5.4 billion a year in law enforcement costs

Problem substance use appears to be higher in some industries than others. Industries at higher risk include:3

  • Construction (e.g., carpenters, bricklayers, crane operators, roofers, steel workers)

  • transport (e.g., shipping, long-haul trucking, airlines, rail)

  • food services/hospitality (e.g., cooks, wait staff, hotel staff, maintenance workers)

  • resource industries (e.g., oil and gas, forestry, mining)

Substance use issues that employers end up dealing with include:

  • after-effects of substance use (hangover, withdrawal) affecting job performance

  • arriving late for work, absenteeism, illness and dismissal because of impairment

  • poor job performance and/or reduced productivity (slowed work pace, mistakes, injury and safety infractions)

  • preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work, interfering with attention and concentration

  • illegal activities at work, including selling illicit drugs to other employees

  • job performance affected by psychological or stress-related effects of substance abuse by a family member, friend or co-worker

The crux of it: when does the monster become a disability?

There are differences between problem substance use (or substance abuse) and addiction. Each requires different duties of care and due diligence from employers. While both problem substance use and addiction create problems in the workplace, the cost of the solution to each can be very different. The methods and costs range from an initial simple chat with the boss for a worker correcting a behavioural choice (e.g., quitting smoking) to comprehensive treatment and return-to-work programs if there’s a full-on addiction.

Problem substance use can be defined as any use of alcohol or other drugs, legal or illegal, that becomes a problem. It’s a problem when substance use becomes the focal point of an individual’s life and that person continues to use it despite potential serious consequences.

Substance use (e.g., casual or social) can be a problem, but not necessarily an addiction. It can be a problem in that it creates risk and all the other challenges for employers noted above. But if it’s a person’s choice of behaviour, as opposed to a compulsion, it can be stopped at will.

Addiction is a compulsive or physiological dependence on something habit-forming. Addiction moves along a scale, from habit to compulsion. From compulsion to need. From need to dependence and craving. And, addictions are not limited to substance use; they can include gambling, food, sex, video games and a variety of other activities that in their own way can affect job performance, attendance and safety.

No matter where on the addiction scale a person sits, the distraction caused by addiction impairs judgment and a person’s ability to make good decisions. This makes it hard for a person with an addiction to perform his or her work properly, efficiently and safely. The worker’s addiction endangers not only him/herself, but fellow workers and others around them as well.

Employer response to problem substance use would generally be part of a progressive discipline policy. The employer would warn an employee two or three times that their problem substance use must stop. If it’s a lifestyle choice, and the worker realizes the boss is serious, the worker will stop the problem substance use. However, if the worker is not able to stop the substance use, this would be an addiction.

An employer would not ‘diagnose’ an addiction. Who makes that diagnosis and when it’s made is up to the individual interpretation of employer, employee and union (if they’re involved). It could be an addictions counsellor through an EAP/EFAP program, for instance. An addictions counsellor would have some tests and measurements to help make the distinction between problem use and addiction.

If an employer discovers that one of its employees has an addiction, however, the employer is left with no choice but to recognize the behaviour as a disability.

Employers have a duty to accommodate the monster

Employers and management don’t want to look too closely at employees’ habits or behaviours. They’re afraid they’ll find issues that they don’t want to deal with.

Whether they like it or not, however, employers in British Columbia have a “duty to accommodate,” according to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.4 If an employee has an addiction, and thus a disability, the employer must make sure the employee has access to treatment and must proceed with the duty to accommodate. That is, the employer must provide support to enable the employee to either remain in the workplace or to return to work after recovery.

Many employers don’t understand their “duty to accommodate.” Many don’t want to do it. They would rather remove the worker from the workplace completely and permanently—they’d rather ignore the monster and hope it will go away.

Some employers feel it’s not fair that they are responsible for helping their employees get treatment, sometimes at the company’s expense. They see the problem as “self-inflicted,” so don’t grasp why it should be their responsibility. This speaks to a lack of understanding and knowledge about the nature of addictions.

There is a tremendous amount of awareness and education that needs to be done for employers and management.

So how do we tackle the monster?

It won’t be simple, but there are steps we can take:

  • First, we need to stop denying that the monster exists in our workplaces. We need to acknowledge that it is a reality and face it.

  • Then, we need to declare—together, as workplace employers and workers—that the  monster is not welcome on our work site, in our industry, in our province.

  • We need to collectively commit to addressing the monster—the problem of substance use and addiction—and stick to it, despite the inconvenience and short-term cost.

  • After that, we need to learn, and understand, the variety of addictions.

  • Employers, management and workers themselves need to be armed with the knowledge and tools to identify suspected addictions or addictive behaviours. This requires that training, policy changes and other mechanisms be put in place to protect the rights of all concerned.

  • From there, employers and management need an array of available options to present to the employees concerned—everything from counselling to treatment to a return-to-work program. One approach will not work for all situations.

How do you eat an elephant?

It’s like the old joke: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time.”

For a good first step, visit and see the wide range of information, tools and training available there for employers and supervisors. Go ahead, take the first bite!

About the author
MaryAnne is the Director of Forestry TruckSafe & Northern Initiatives at the BC Forest Safety Council and Vice-President of the BC Council on Substance Abuse
  1. Publicover, R. (2006). Working collaboratively to address substance abuse in the forest sector.

  2. Rehm, J., Baliunas, D., Brochu, S. et al. (2006). The costs of substance abuse in Canada 2002: Highlights. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

  3. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (2008). Workplace overview (fact sheet).

  4. Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2004). What is the duty to accommodate? (fact sheet). Also see


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