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How to Manage Addictions in the Workplace

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Vital HR  •   July 28, 2019

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Are you struggling to manage a potential employee addiction?

Have you ever encountered addiction in your workplace?  If so, you’ll know that alcohol and substance abuse can be tricky topics to navigate!

There are a few things you should know as an employer before taking action in the event you suspect a worker is dependant on drugs/alcohol.

This post highlights a recent experience of mine with a client (true story!) and will provide you with some steps to guide you in effectively managing an employee struggling with addiction.

The Story…

Joe* was a young employee with a strong track-record.  He worked for my client for just under two years when his coworkers and supervisors began to notice a change in his behaviour.

Joe had less energy and was visibly agitated and grumpy in the morning… but he would soon return to his “normal” self after Joe’s daily stroll to his car around noon.

STEP 1: Document suspicious behaviour and confirm with another supervisor (if possible)

Due to the impact Joe’s behaviour had on productivity and team morale, I arranged a meeting with him and his supervisor, *Daniel.

STEP 2:  Meet with the worker and address your concerns

The next day I sat down for a meeting with Joe and Daniel. We started off the meeting by expressing our concerns to Joe and asked him how he has been feeling.  Then, I directly asked:

“Are you under the influence of medication or unauthorized drugs/alcohol?”

Key Message:  People don’t think they can ask this question… but YOU HAVE TO!  This is entirely about maintaining a safe working environment for your employee and their coworkers.

A few warning signs of addiction to look out for include…

  1. Personality Changes
  2. Physical Signs
  3. Frequent Bathroom Breaks
  4. Change in Performance
  5. Social Withdrawal

Joe denied that he was using substances on the job… so I asked a second time (see key message above).  Joe stuck to his story and we concluded our meeting.  Daniel said although Joe denied being impaired on the job, he would keep a close eye on Joe at work.

STEP 3:  Document meeting and outcomes

The next day at 9:30 AM, Joe drove (in his personal vehicle) from one job site to another approximately 30 minutes away but never showed up.  Out of concern we called Joe several times, but he didn’t pick up.

We called local hospitals and police stations, but we had no luck.

By 1 PM, Daniel and his colleague went searching for Joe around town (however; I do not recommend initiating a search party if you ever encounter a similar situation).

It turns out Joe had been consuming ‘Special K’ (no… not the cereal) in his truck.  For those of you (myself included) who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘Special K’ is a common street name for Ketamine.  I did some digging and this is what I found out about the substance…

“Ketamine is a general anesthetic… and is used illicitly usually by being inhaled in powdered form especially for the dreamlike or hallucinogenic state it produces” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

After consuming the drug, Joe got in his car and drove under the influence.

It didn’t take long for him to get pulled over by the police due to his erratic driving.  He was immediately arrested, and his car was impounded.

After being released, Joe returned to his impounded car and took more ‘Special K’.

While high, Joe started walking down the street and fell and hit his head. He was taken to the hospital and called his supervisor later that evening to tell him what happened.

STEP 4:  Do NOT allow your employee to work until they have a Doctor’s note saying they are clear of any unauthorized substances

I advised my client not to allow Joe to return to work until he seeks treatment.

Now that Daniel is formally aware of Joe’s drug dependency, my client would be liable in the event of an accident occurring at work.

This is considered contributory negligence, because we had knowledge of Joe’s drug addiction and didn’t do anything about it.

The tricky part about drug abuse in the workplace is that Human Rights legislation defines addiction as a mental disability.  This shifts your response from discipline-oriented to treatment-oriented.

STEP 5:  Offer support

I advised Joe to apply for short-term disability while he took some time off to recover.  About a week later Joe reached out to Daniel and told him he was clean.

Quiz time!  Should you let Joe come back to work based on his word?  NO

I sent Joe a description of his rights/responsibilities, advised him (again) to apply for short-term disability and reminded Joe that we will provide any support that he needs.

For the next month, Joe was MIA.  The phone number he gave us was incorrect, and he failed to submit a Doctor’s form to the insurer.

Our only method of communicating was through work email.

I called IT to ask if Joe was receiving our emails, and IT verified he had read them but did not respond.

STEP 6:  Stay in contact with the employee (or at least try!)

After countless efforts to reach Joe on the phone, I sent him a note saying we had to terminate and advised him to apply for Employment Insurance (EI) for illness/disability since he failed submit documentation for short-term disability.

Joe immediately responded saying “Don’t fire me, I really want to work here.  Don’t let me go.”

That Friday, we found out that Joe applied for short-term disability, but his claim was denied because he was not in a treatment program.

I waited to hear back from Joe.  He emailed me the following Tuesday to let me know that he was visiting his Doctor the next day.

A few days later I received an outdated, 1-page form from the WSIB.  All it said was, “Joe is fine to work when he is not on Ketamine” (well…duh)

I responded to Joe’s email, saying he must call me on Monday morning.

During our phone call, Joe said he had been clean since June (which probably explains why he didn’t fully engage in our support procedures) and was visiting his Doctor on a weekly basis.

Due to the fact this is highly confidential medical information, Joe’s Doctor was prohibited from providing details.

I told Joe, “we’re trying to support you as much as possible, but we have to worry about the health ad safety of everyone in the workplace, yourself included”.

STEP 7:  Collect PROOF of treatment

After getting permission from my client, I reached out to an Employment lawyer.  The consensus was that Joe needed proof that he was actively engaging in a treatment program.

Key message:  Without documented proof of treatment, you are exposing the ENTIRE organization to an avoidable health and safety risk. This process is not in place to punish employees… it’s there to protect them.

Joe request to return to work was denied, but it wasn’t due to the fact he was struggling with addiction… it was because he refused to seek proper treatment.

This is NOT the kind of news to deliver in an email, so I called Joe.  Once again, no response.

I waited a few hours before sending him an email.  It went something like this…

“We consulted with legal counsel, and the health and safety of yourself and others is paramount.  We did everything in our power to support you.  We reached out several times and offered a variety of available services, but ultimately we had to make a decision about the health and safety of the organization.”

Following my email, Joe called his supervisor (even though he shouldn’t have) in an act of desperation.

I advised my client not to engage with Joe until he was in active treatment.

STEP 8:  Comply with legislation

Joe’s lack of involvement in the process demonstrated either real level of immaturity, or a high level of dependence.

Under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), workers are entitled to 16 WEEKS job protection leave.

Key message:  You are OBLIGATED to hire back a worker struggling with substance/alcohol abuse if they can prove completion of an addiction/counselling program within 16 weeks of issuing an ROE (Record of Employment).

As for Joe… we don’t know if he’ll be return to work.

What we do know is- he will be welcomed back to the company within 16 weeks if he can prove he has received appropriate treatment.


Reach out to your Insurance Broker: Insurance brokers are subject-matter experts who can provide you with FREE advice! On navigating situations involving short-term disability, in this case – addiction and dependancy  If they won’t help… you need to call me because I have one who provides this level of service!

Employ ‘Constructive Confrontation’: Clearly state what you heard or saw, how this impacts the organization and what your expectations are. Remember to use non-accusatory language and practice active listening.  You want your employee to feel like their voice is being heard!

When in doubt: Pull the Health & Safety Card – and wave it! We support individuals who seek treatment… but keeping your workplace SAFE is your #1 priority!

Your hands are NOT tied… You CAN navigate addiction at work!

*Joe and Daniel are pseudonyms.  Some details have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the worker/employer.  Joe’s experiences are common to many employees in various circumstances, communities and workplaces.

Sue Douglas

President – Vital Management Solutions

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