Impairment policy

If impaired, some individuals could exhibit erratic behaviours that can escalate to a workplace crisis. Read on to learn how you can prevent this type of situation by developing, communicating and implementing an impairment policy.

According to The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), most people think of impairment as a result of substance use in terms of alcohol or drugs. There are actually a variety of situations, including family or health issues, trauma or employee stress, that may impair a person's ability to do their work safely and effectively. In addition to establishing an impairment policy, investing in an Employee stress prevention process can help.

Develop an impairment policy

Some organizations may choose to establish a workplace committee to help develop and implement their policy. The committee should include representation from employees, occupational health professionals, management and unions, where applicable. You may also wish to include representation from your employee assistance plan or benefit providers, as well as community addiction specialists.

Your formal policy should clearly identify expectations and outline the consequences of failing to comply. Key messages and themes to cover in your policy include:

  • Clear statement of the policy’s purpose
  • Definition of problematic substance use in the workplace
  • Definition of impairment in the workplace
  • Definition of safe and acceptable behaviours
  • Description of signs or symptoms that indicate potential impairment
  • When to intervene if impairment is suspected
  • Guidelines for the initial discussion with an employee suspected of being impaired at work
  • Guidelines for consistent and professional interactions with employees who are impaired at work
  • Safety procedures related to intervention
  • Safety procedures related to sending an impaired employee home
  • Details about potential disciplinary action
  • Mandatory training requirements for employees and leaders to recognize and report impairment
  • List of who’s covered under the policy, such as full and part-time staff, students, interns, third parties, volunteers and independent contractors
  • Statement outlining how the policy will apply to work-related social events, off-site events or other non-routine business events
  • Statement outlining how the policy complies with privacy legislation
  • Process for informing the organization if an employee is receiving medical treatment that may impair their performance. Remember, it’s usually not permissible under human rights legislation to demand the name of the medication.
  • Process for employees to report a concern about a co-worker's fitness for duty due to impairment
  • Procedure for reporting violations of the policy
  • Description of any conditions under which drug or alcohol testing may be required. Please refer to the applicable legislation for your jurisdiction. 
  • Disciplinary actions or consequences for both the first and subsequent incidents
  • Describe the availability of employee assistance programs or other available resources 
  • Define what’s expected of managers or others enforcing the policy, including having regular discussions with their teams

A committee action plan should be developed in conjunction with the policy that:

  • Schedules an initial policy review by legal advisors and senior management.
  • Ensures regular reviews of the policy with key players, including those listed above. 
  • Confirms employees know about the policy (through written confirmation) that each employee has received and read the policy and any amendments.
  • Considers workplace situations when behaviours related to impairment or problematic substance use might be:
    • Difficult to detect
    • Potentially hazardous
    • More likely to occur due to higher levels of stress, accountability or responsibility 
  • Considers hosting wellness, substance use and addiction awareness workshops internally or with experts, employee assistance plan providers, benefit providers or local addiction agencies.
  • Uses regular and confidential surveys to obtain employee opinions and feedback about the current state of wellness within the organization.

Provide training

It’s important to remember that your focus as a senior leader, manager, supervisor or union representative should be on addressing workplace behaviours, not managing problematic substance use or addiction. The training you develop should include an understanding of:

  • Impairment-free policy – The intent of the policy and the procedures to be followed.
  • Testing procedures – Details of how or when any drug or alcohol testing procedures, or other testing for impairment, are allowed.
  • Consequences for non-compliance – Awareness of what can and cannot be done with respect to the policy or testing procedures.
  • Employee communication – Explain the impairment policy, including key messages about objectives and responsibilities.
  • Recognizing symptoms – Awareness of the signs of impairment or problematic substance use.
  • Procedures and documentation – Create awareness of what should be done when there are observable workplace signs of impairment, problematic substance use or behaviours related to addiction.
  • Resources – Help identify appropriate resources to offer employees who need to address problematic substance use as well as stressors that can cause impairment like family, finances, education/training, performance demands, etc.).
  • Crisis response training – Appropriate responses to a crisis related to stressors, addiction or problematic substance use.
  • Stigma reduction – Address myths and stereotypes about impairment, whether it's related to stress, mental health issues, problematic substance use or addiction.

See also Impairment and addiction response for leaders to learn workplace strategies for responding to situations resulting from employee impairment.

Educate employees

Developing the policy and training your leaders is only one half of the process. Next, you’ll need to educate your employees on the impairment policy and make sure they understand what it means for them. Employee education could include:

  • Policy communication – Explain the impairment policy, including key messages about objectives and responsibilities.
  • Awareness – Share information about how stressors, problematic substance use or addiction can cause impairment and impact workplace safety, health and performance, professional and personal relationships.
  • Expert speakers – Seek out professional speakers who talk about their first-person experience with problematic substance use and other addictions. Benefit providers or local addictions agencies may also have or be able to recommend speakers.

This information is adapted from Impairment at Work by The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and You Are The Key: 10 Steps for Employers to a Drug-Free Workplace courtesy of Sunshine Coast Health Centre.

Please note that the policies and prevention responses are provided as information only about some of the factors related to addiction that may impact mental health. As such, this information does not address or take into account legal requirements that may apply to your organization in this regard and this information should not be relied upon for this purpose.

Additional resources

The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you.

Communicating with emotional employees. These strategies can help you have supportive conversations with employees and avoid triggering negative reactions.

Does Someone I Work With Have a Problem? | PDF . Provided by the Alberta Health Services.

When an Employee has a Substance Related Problem. This Article provides strategies managers can use to support employees who are experiencing addiction. Article courtesy of Mental Health Works.

It's Our Business - The Basics: Alcohol, Other Drugs and Gambling | PDF. An overview that looks at the basics and impacts of alcohol, other drugs and gambling in the workplace.