Why employers should be concerned about workers’ substance use health

Expert cites stigma of asking about substance use – and importance of being proactive

Why employers should be concerned about workers’ substance use health

The substance use health of workers should be a concern for employers, and the numbers say so, according to one expert.

“Statistics point us to 78% of people in Canada using substances, which include alcohol. And as we know, alcohol is one of the most consumed substances in Canada,” says Ashleigh Hyland, program manager, CAPSA, in talking with HRD Canada.

She adds that 41% of people in Canada are “consuming alcohol at a high risk and aren't aware” about it.

“We question why people are unaware and why this is not already part of our conversation? Why isn't substance use health part of our conversation? Well, it's often because of the stigma that's associated around substance use. And typically, substance use has become synonymous with substance use disorder, which is a very far end of the substance use spectrum.”

The cost of substance abuse to the Canadian economy hit a staggering $49.1 billion in 2020, according to data released this week from Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

Substance use health versus substance use disorder

Currently, substance use “is often only being looked at when it becomes an illness”, and that’s a problem, says Hyland.

“We recognize that people experience harms and impacts to their health no matter where they are on the spectrum. And so this is really an important, proactive approach that needs to take place.”

Another problem is that there aren't enough tools and resources available to employers to help them support workers on the different spectrum of substance use, she says.

“There's also a lot of need for [establishing] how we talk about substance use with employees in a way that is compassionate, that doesn't facilitate stigma. So how can we open up these conversations so that people do feel comfortable and safe accessing resources?

“What we're hearing a lot is that there is a fear of even using employment assistant programs.”

Nearly all (95%) of people with a mental health or substance use disorder indicated that they have been impacted by stigma in the past five years, according to a previous report.

The key to putting a solution in place to help prevent workers who use substances from going further down the spectrum is to build a culture that normalizes, says Hyland.

“What's really important for workplaces is not only to focus on at what point do we talk to an employee about substance use, but on how we are building a culture where we're normalizing these conversations for all employees.

“It's not always about identifying who might be struggling, but it's about what practices are we engaging in as an organization so that all employees would actually feel comfortable talking about this – so that we can create an environment where we don't only talk about substance use when it becomes an illness, because it can be very challenging to find the right services or to find the right supports.”

Employers are losing billions of dollars due to workers’ substance use, according to a previous report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) and the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR).

Assessing substance use health

To help employers effectively manage the issue of substance health use among workers before it gets worse, CAPSA proposes evidence-informed innovative solutions with a toolkit, where employers can take an assessment and to see where they are and whether they are in line with healthy approaches to substance use problem resolutions, says Hyland.

“There are six categories and 43 standards that an organization can use to help align themselves with [our] health approach. So we might look at workplace health policies or policies that would have a direct impact on employee health. We might look at the overall workplace environment, as well as the role that workplace culture might play into employee health. 

“So we look at these different areas and provide different standards for ways in which employers can align themselves with our approach.”

CAPSA also offers health-focused policies around substance use in the workplace, policies for how an organization can best support an employee who may disclose that they require some support around their health and substance use. 

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