A decade ago, these issues led to productivity losses of about $24 billion a year in Canada, so it’s likely that today these numbers have skyrocketed. And contrary to popular belief, the employee doesn’t have to be drunk or high to cause problems. For example, people who suffer from these afflictions have high absenteeism rates, and when they do show up for work, they often have withdrawal symptoms. They can have strained relationships with coworkers, poor work quality and trouble concentrating and making decisions. “The crash can cause these people to feel edgy and irritable,” says Melissa Snider-Adler, an addiction physician in the Greater Toronto Area and the chief medical review officer at DriverCheck Inc., an Ayr, Ont.-based company that offers third-party administration for occupational health and medicine, including drug and alcohol testing.
Addiction is a serious, complex problem that can end careers. The bright side is that leaders can intervene to help those who abuse drugs and alcohol. Here’s how.
PUT POLICIES IN PLACE
You don’t need a written policy that explains that bad behaviour and poor performance caused by substance abuse can result in termination, but a clear document can make intervention conversations easier. If worded well and passed by the company’s legal team, policies can reduce the stigma about addiction and mental health and give employees information about finding help. (Mental illness and addictions often overlap; about 15% of people with a substance-abuse disorder also have a mental-health problem.) “This can create an environment that is more open for people to feel comfortable about getting the help they need,” says Snider-Adler.
Policies should also clarify when the employer might do random drug testing, which is legal in Canada as long as the workplace shows there’s a risk but cannot use results to discriminate against those with an addiction disorder.
If you suspect a team member has a substance-abuse problem and it’s impacting his or her work, you can and should step in. But tread carefully. Federal and provincial human rights codes say that addiction is a disability and is therefore protected. Employers must offer accommodation, which may involve offering time off for an employee to access treatment. (It is up to the employee to prove he or she has a disability and employers cannot fire, discipline or treat the worker differently. The exact nature of protection greatly depends on the circumstances.) “Before human rights protection kicks in, there has to be a physical, medical addiction,” says human resource lawyer Howard Levitt of Toronto-based Levitt LLP. “If it’s simply drinking too much or anything short of addiction, there’s no protection.”
A manager who thinks an employee suffers from addiction should call a private meeting and present information about behaviours that are concerning the team. It’s key not to mention drugs or alcohol. “You cannot and should not be diagnosing,” says Barbara Butler, an expert on workplace alcohol and drug policies and testing in Toronto. After all, it’s difficult to tell the difference between addiction, a mental-health problem and someone dealing with serious personal issues. “You cannot tell by looking at someone that he or she has a substance- use problem — this person looks like everyone else,” says Snider-Adler.
As a manager you can make it clear that the employee’s behaviour is troublesome, and that while what happens after hours is none of your business, you’re there to help. Fleming suggests leaning on a leadership style that’s heavy on communication, support and compassion without being accusatory. That said, you have to be clear that if the behaviour doesn’t change, his or her job is at risk. Offer information on how to access the company’s EAP. Levitt says that after you’ve broached the subject and offered assistance, it’s acceptable to ask if he or she has an addiction or other disability that requires accommodation. If substance abuse is confirmed, it’s then up to the employer to provide accommodations and assistance.
If the employee doesn’t accept help and the issues continue after that first warning, managers can fire with cause — just be sure to document everything. If the employee confides in you and admits to an addiction, but doesn’t stick to the agreement you make together (go to a treatment facility or follow an addiction doctor’s advice), you can still let him or her go without risking a human rights case. “Accommodation is a dual obligation,” says Levitt. Both must participate and follow the rules.
EDUCATE THE TEAM
Update employees about using cannabis, and clarify the substance-abuse disorder connection, as 10% of marijuana users become addicted, says the American Psychiatric Association. Folks should know that just because pot will soon be legal, employees can’t use marijuana or prescription opioids on the job. Those who rely on opioids or the tetrahydrocannabinol (better known as THC) in pot will need to develop a plan with their doctors and employer about alternative options (perhaps a different medication or medical leave).
Having a plan in place and knowing how to reach out to employees with compassion will prepare you — on paper, anyway. The reality is that some employees with a substance-abuse problem will get help and return to work with a new perspective. Others won’t. “People don’t always want to admit they have a problem for fear of how things will go at home and at work. There’s a lot riding on this,” says Snider-Adler.
The truth is, there’s only so much management can do in this unfortunate and potentially dangerous scenario — the onus is also on the employee, who has to be prepared to put in the work to get healthy. There’s no doubt that support from managers and colleagues alike can really make a difference.