Substance use “an emerging concern”

Two leading educators in the field of workplace health explore the impact substance use can have on employees and the workplace.

Substance use “an emerging concern”
Substance abuse costs the Canadian economy an estimated $40 billion each year[1] and has been linked to numerous workplace outcomes including absenteeism, lost productivity, on-the-job accidents and injuries, and workplace violence and harassment.[2]

While substance use in the workplace is not a new issue, it is one that is constantly evolving and at the leading edge of employment law. Recent changes to legislation concerning medical marijuana, announcements to legalize marijuana by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and increased awareness of Canada’s prescription drug problem, have prompted questions and raised concerns by Canadian employers on what they should do to protect their organization and the health, safety, and well-being of their employees.

Addressing and preventing problematic substance use in the workplace should be a priority for all employers. Unfortunately, very little is known about the types of initiatives Canadian organizations have implemented to either prevent and/or address problematic substance use in the workplace. Without such information it is difficult to identify and monitor existing patterns, trends, challenges, and best-practices related this important issue.

Recognizing the importance of evidence-informed decision making, and the important contribution such information could have on workplace health, wellness, and safety, The Conference Board of Canada conducted a study to fill this information gap.

Results of this study, the first of its kind to provide information on the frequency, types, and characteristics of existing drug and alcohol policies and programs among Canadian employers, will be released in September 2016.

Overall, the findings from the study indicate that many Canadian organizations have taken steps to address problematic substance use in their workplace, however the means by which they do this often vary by size, sector, and industry.

The prevalence of employers who measure the effectiveness of their alcohol and drug support programs, by industry.

(per cent)

*Please note: Employers in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industries as well as those in construction are not included in the chart above and none of these employers measured the effectiveness of their programs. Furthermore, the number of respondents in these categories was not significant [Arts, entertainment, and recreation (n=3); construction (n=1)]

Source: The Conference Board of Canada.

Interestingly, although drug and alcohol programs and policies need to be evaluated to ensure their effectiveness, only 32 percent of employers reported that they evaluated the effectiveness of their drug and alcohol support programs and policies, but nearly half consider their programs “very” or “extremely” effective.

Furthermore, although there are a variety of consequences for employees who test positive on a drug test, for most Canadian employers, the focus is on providing support and treatment instead of disciplinary actions for individuals with dependency issues.
  • By Mary-Lou MacDonald
Mary-Lou MacDonald MSc – Director, Workplace Health, Wellness and Safety Research, The Conference Board of Canada

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[1] Rehm and others, The Costs of Substance Abuse, 9.
[2] Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Substance Use in the Workplace.

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