SUMMARY: Help reduce the negative impact of problematic substance use on the employee, co-workers and the organization.

Responding to employee impairment from alcohol, drugs or other substances

While an employee's addiction may be a disability and may trigger an employer's duty to accommodate, because of the potential for risk to health and safety, employers may choose to implement strict measures when on-the-job impairment is observed. This does not relieve the employer of the duty to explore accommodation with the employee.

For information about warning signs of drug or alcohol misuse see You Are the Key: 10 Steps for Employers to a Drug-Free Workplace, page 19.

When an employee is under the influence of drugs, alcohol or other substances:

  • Immediately escort an employee away from co-workers for a private discussion.
  • Be aware if the employee may be presenting a risk to self or others, and address any safety issues immediately.
  • Request that another person from management or the union join the conversation for safety and to be a witness to the discussion.
  • Objectively state what you have observed.
    • E.g., rather than, "You look drunk" you could say, "I am noticing that you are responding more slowly than usual, you are slurring your words, and I can smell alcohol when I stand beside you."
    • E.g., when an employee arrives to work late, disheveled and with bloodshot eyes, rather than saying "Did you have a rough night?" you could say, "I notice that you were not at your desk when I expected you to be here, and your eyes are red."
    • These non-judgmental approaches allow you to check your assumptions before accusing someone of substance use or impairment.
  • Provide an opportunity for the employee to explain the behaviour.
    • Some behaviours that may look like problematic substance use can result from other conditions (e.g. Parkinson's disease, side effects of medication, low blood sugar, concussion, heat stroke, etc.). The employee's explanation should be documented.
  • Call for medical assistance, where appropriate.
  • Contact appropriate workplace stakeholders.
    • This could include a senior manager, human resources professional or a union representative.
  • Provide safe transportation home.
    • If a decision is made to send the employee home, include arrangements for someone to meet them at home. You may wish to call the emergency contact that should be listed in the employee's personnel file. Also, make sure the employee is not driving while impaired. Call a cab or arrange a ride.

When the employee is returning to work

  • Respond to co-worker concerns.
    • Have conversations with co-workers that allow them to feel heard. Focus on solutions to  workplace issues, while respecting the privacy and confidentiality of the employee who is returning.
  • Assess the need for accommodation.
    • Under most human rights legislation, an addiction is considered to be a disability.
    • Discussions with the employee should consider whether the duty to accommodate exists. See also Accommodation.
  • Consider disciplinary measures.
  • Clarify consequences for potential relapse.
    • It is beneficial if the manager and employee have a clear process to follow if the employee's substance use or abuse in the workplace reoccurs. The manager may want to discuss this with the organization's legal counsel, Human Resources or senior management.
  • Re-establish a working relationship.
    • Once the employee has returned to work, conversations should be supportive and focused on work, and on any performance issues that need to be addressed. See also Accommodation and Return to Work.
    • Your role is not to deal with the addiction, but rather to support the employee to be successful at work.
  • Consider how the workplace can be more inclusive and supportive.
    • E.g., hold workplace social events that are alcohol-free.

Adapted from: You Are The Key: 10 Steps for Employers to a Drug-Free Workplace.

See also Addiction Prevention for approaches and policies to help prevent and address behaviours related to addiction in the workplace.

Helping the employee access information and support

The following resources provide information about addiction, treatment, and assessment.

Note that if you click on a link you may be entering a third party website not maintained or controlled in any way by us or our affiliated companies. For more information, please see Legal and Copyright.

Both the employer and the employee may benefit from a review of The Addicted Employee: After Treatment.

Canada Alcohol and Drug Rehab
Free directory of sources for alcohol or drug treatment locations throughout Canada.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – Assessment Services (Addiction)
Free assessment service (through a physician referral) that explores presenting problems, history, strengths and perceived needs. Discussion of appropriate services.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Information about addiction and treatment.

Seven Signs of A Good Treatment Centre provides some considerations for choosing an addiction treatment centre. This information is provided courtesy of Sunshine Coast Health Centre.

Working Through It
Video of an employee talking about his experience with addiction.
For suggestions on how to refer employees to Working Through It, see Referring Employees to Working Through It.

Please note that the information provided here does not address or take into account legal requirements that may apply to your organization and this information should not be relied upon for this purpose.