Substance Use In The Workplace

Individual drug use is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it exists in a larger context. Understanding that context is key to making sense of and addressing problematic substance use and addiction, and promoting mental health.

Work, employment, and the need to earn money are important parts of that context for most people. Indeed, many people drink or use drugs at their place of employment, for reasons we’ll explore below. Problematic substance use at work is not limited to illicit or street drugs. It extends to prescription pharmaceuticals as well, such as anxiolytics or stimulants, which people may take as prescribed or in a self-medicating fashion.

From our own experiences in different work settings, we may already have a sense of which kinds of work environments may correlate with higher rates of addiction and abuse. But what do the statistics tell us?

Are Certain Professions More Susceptible To Problematic Substance Use?

According to a study done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the US, the top industries for heavy alcohol use and illicit drug use were found to be mining, construction, accommodations & food service, art/entertainment/recreation, and the utility industry. 

From our decades of experience in mental health and addiction, we can say that drug abuse is by no means limited to those professions. Legal professionals, first responders, and veterans & active members are also susceptible to problematic substance use and addiction. In fact, any career or job can lend itself to problematic substance use and addiction. Let’s take a look at why.

Why Do People Drink or Use Drugs on the Job?

People drink or use drugs at work for a variety of reasons. Some may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with the stress of their job. Or they may use drugs or alcohol because they believe it helps them perform better at their job.

man struggling with substance use

Many work environments may also present social pressure. Using drugs or drinking may be seen as a social activity or a way to bond with coworkers. Drinking and drug use may also stem from boredom or lack of fulfillment in a job. This can be particularly true if people feel stuck in a dead-end job with few opportunities for advancement or growth. 

One factor that is rarely talked about in terms of understanding drug use is the way in which people’s bodies, talents, and time are routinely exploited in employment settings. The majority of people are overworked, underpaid, and often work in physically and psychologically unsafe or suboptimal conditions. Drinking and drug use makes it possible for some people to simply keep going.

Those struggling with addiction may find it difficult to resist drinking or using drugs, even when they are at work. Similarly, people who suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of self-medicating, carrying this practice into their work hours.

Issues With Substance Use In The Workplace

While drinking and substance use can become normalized at work, they can also have serious implications for both workers and employers. We’re all familiar with the idea that substance use can increase the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Individuals may think not me!

But at the population level, substance use and impairment pose a risk to individual workers, their coworkers, and the public. According to WorkBC, drinking and substance at work may lead to:

  • Impaired judgment, perception, and decision-making,
  • Decreased coordination, sensory perception and reaction time
  • Psychological or stress-related effects, such as mood swings

The Legal Risks Involved

In many work settings, employees and employers may be breaking laws and other acts that regulate things like workplace safety or certain substances. In Canada, workplaces may be subject to provincial Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) Legislation, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), and the Cannabis Act, to name a few. Breaking these laws and regulations can lead to fines, imprisonment, or to legal liability for any incidents that happen where an employee is found to be impaired.

Drinking and substance use can also have social repercussions, such as alienating people, lowering workplace culture and morale, and generally straining relationships with colleagues, managers, and clients/customers. 

Employee termination for drinking or substance use is another way that drinking or substance use at work affects everyone. Workers may find themselves out of a job, and businesses suffer from increased turnover and recruitment costs. Incidents that involve drinking or substance use may also impact the reputation of employees or employers, leading to reduced work.

What Are Some Ways To Reduce Drinking And Substance Use At Work?

The responsibilities for managing impairment fall both on workers and employers. As workers, we have the responsibility to refuse unsafe work. If your ability to work safely is impaired for any reason, whether from a physical or mental impairment, you have an obligation not to work, as working may create a risk to yourself or others.

Similarly, employers are responsible for not assigning impaired workers to activities where impairment may create an undue risk. In many jurisdictions, including BC, OH&S laws also make it an employer’s responsibility to ensure impaired workers don’t remain on the work site.

Employers can also take a proactive approach by developing policies and procedures that address impairment in the workplace. Effective policies will outline expectations, as well as consequences for violating policies. They can also offer support for those who may be struggling with addiction.

Education and training about the dangers of drinking or substance use at work are also important. Overall, by promoting a responsible and healthy workplace culture, employers can create a safe and productive work environment that supports the well-being of their employees.

If you are a business owner, employer, or manage teams of workers, please reach out to us today to find out how we can support your goal of a healthier and safer work environment.

Is There A Way To Stop Using Substances At Work?

Despite everything that employers can and should do, stopping substance use at work is ultimately up to the individual. We can help.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre and Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic are world-class centres for addiction and mental health treatment. We take an approach that recognizes the physical, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of treatment and recovery. If you or someone you know is looking for support with substance use or mental health, give us a call today.

More resources

Workplace Safety | Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction

The Prevalence of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

CCOHS: Substance Use in the Workplace

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