Employees with drug and alcohol issues need better supports

'Many organizations lack comprehensive policies' says expert

Employees with drug and alcohol issues need better supports

At the Canada Pension and Benefits Institute (CPBI) Forum in Ottawa, Dr. Sandra Primiano, vice president of research, quality, and clinical practice at Homewood Health, delivered a compelling presentation on "How to Support Employees with Substance Use Issues." Drawing from an extensive environmental scan by the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction, Dr. Primiano's insights are crucial for health and safety professionals, particularly those in high-hazard industries.

Dr. Primiano highlights a critical gap in workplace substance use policies across Canada. The environmental scan reviewed approximately 800 organizations from ten industries, uncovering only 35 policies, 12 policy statements, and 24 position statements. "Many organizations lack comprehensive policies, especially those that integrate supportive and proactive measures alongside disciplinary actions," says Dr. Primiano.

High-hazard industries

Substance use issues are notably prevalent in specific sectors. According to Dr. Primiano, "substance use disorders are significantly higher in industries such as mining, oil and gas, and forestry, with rates around 11-12%." These sectors, characterized by isolated worksites and high-risk environments, see increased substance use among workers. The irregular hours and flexible shifts common in these industries contribute to higher consumption rates of alcohol and drugs. These workers also tend to operate heavy machinery and work around heavy equipment.

Proactive and supportive policies

Dr. Primiano emphasizes the need for more than just disciplinary measures in workplace substance use policies. "Comprehensive policies should include education, manager training, and robust support options for employees," she advises. Here are some key recommendations for organizations:

  1. Educational campaigns: Increasing awareness about the risks and impacts of substance use, especially with the legalization of cannabis, is vital. Education should cover how substances impair functions such as learning, memory, attention, decision-making, and planning.
  2. Supportive work environment: Policies should aim to reduce stigma and encourage employees to seek help. This can be achieved through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and confidential consultation services.
  3. Assessment and treatment: Organizations should provide access to Substance Abuse Expert (SAE) assessment services to meet Canadian Human Rights disability accommodation requirements. These services offer diagnostic assessments, treatment recommendations, and return-to-work feedback.
  4. Extended mental health services: Beyond short-term counseling, long-term psychotherapy and recovery management programs should be available. Peer support programs can also be beneficial, allowing employees to consult peers and access resources.

Moving forward

Dr. Primiano's insights underscore the importance of a holistic approach to substance use in the workplace. "We need to step back and evaluate our current policies," she concludes. "From education to assessments and extended support, a comprehensive strategy is essential to support the workforce effectively."

For health and safety professionals, particularly in high-risk industries, adopting these recommendations can lead to a safer and more supportive work environment. By integrating proactive and supportive measures, organizations can better address substance use issues, ultimately fostering a healthier, more productive workforce.