10 Signs of substance abuse at work

How to spot potential red flags

10 Signs of substance abuse at work
The Canadian Centre for Addictions estimates that 47,000 deaths every year are linked to substance abuse.

Numerous studies have indicated that substance abuse has risen during the pandemic, with an alarming number of Canadians turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with COVID-19 related stress such as health anxiety, depression, financial worries, isolation and unemployment.

A study published by the Canadian Centre of Substance Use and Addiction found that as a result of COVID-19, 21 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 reported that their alcohol consumption had increased. 25 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 said that they had increased the amount of alcohol they drink while spending time at home.

Other surveys have also noted a rise in the use of cannabis, prescription drugs and illegal “street” substances.

Opioid crisis

Concurrently to the pandemic, there is an ongoing opioid crisis in the US and in Canada – with fentanyl being one of the main culprits.

According to Health Canada: 21,174 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred between January 2016 and December 2020.

In 2020 alone, there were 6,214 apparent opioid toxicity deaths – which is approximately 17 deaths a day.

1,766 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred between October and December 2020 – according to Health Canada this is the highest quarterly count since reporting began in 2016. It is also a huge increase from the same time frame in 2019 (885 deaths).

Furthermore, since the onset of the pandemic, 5,148 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred (between April and December 2020), an 89 per cent increase from the same time period in 2019 (2,722 deaths).

During the Fall economic statement in 2020, the federal government noted the rapid increase of opioid-related deaths in Ontario, Alberta and BC during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic compared to the previous 15 weeks. It also pledged $66 million over two years, starting in 2020-2021, to support community-based organizations responding to substance abuse issues.

In the workplace

Overall, the Canadian Centre for Addictions estimates that 47,000 deaths every year are linked to substance abuse, with substance abuse costing the Canadian healthcare system a whopping $8 billion.

Substance abuse issues can spill over into the workplace.

Certain industries are more prone to substance abuse than others, such as the construction sector.

While it is a huge issue, it can be hard for employers to spot the signs of substance abuse, and be able to give employees the support that they need. Here are 10 signs to look out for.

1. Inability to focus. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says that preoccupation with obtaining and using substances while at work can also lead to a lack of concentration and attention.

2. Inattention. Going hand in hand with an inability to focus, inattention is also a huge issue. Lack of attention could potentially lead to some seriously dangerous situations – both for the employee suffering from substance-related issues and their coworkers.

3. Tension and anxiety. Irritability from abuse or withdrawal is a huge giveaway. The Canadian Centre for Addictions says that sudden defensiveness and/or overreaction to criticisms may be an obvious sign. In general, any drastic personality change is a huge red flag.

4. Decline in personal appearance, and 5. Decline in personal hygiene. Addiction Center says that another sign is a decline in personal appearance or hygiene – especially in an employee who was previously meticulous and caring about their appearance.

6. Frequently taking time off. Absenteeism is a huge sign of employee malaise – it can be linked to poor mental health, undiagnosed illness and yes, substance abuse. Addiction Center says that those suffering from substance-related issues may make excuses for vague illnesses or family problems.

7. Sudden weight loss. As well as a decline in personal appearance and hygiene, another physical indicator of substance abuse can be sudden weight loss, or weight gain. The Canadian Centre for Addictions says that the physical effects of withdrawal include intense cravings, trembling and sweating.

8. Bloodshot eyes. As well as weight, the Canadian Centre for Addictions says that another sign of substance abuse – notably from alcohol – is bloodshot eyes, as well as flushed skin and broken capillaries on the face (especially around the nose).

9. Too cagey or too open about personal life. Addiction Center says that while those suffering from addiction typically hide their drug use from employers and coworkers, one indicator of whether a person who is abusing drugs in the workplace may be them openly talking about money problems, or complaining about failing relationships at home.

10. Low productivity. The CCOHS says that while substance use itself can affect job performance, the after-effects (hangover, withdrawal) can also impact performance. Substance abuse can also result in low productivity, and impact a person’s judgement – leading to potentially dangerous decisions.

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