How to Handle Employee Addiction

Link to HRM Online Article

How to Handle Employee Addiction

A recent report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission revealed a worrying level of addiction among employees in the province – an issue which poses a myriad of legal and financial problems for employers.
HRM caught up with Dr Patrick Smith – CEO of Toronto-based addiction treatment centre Renascent – to find out about how addiction impacts the workforce, why employers need to address the issue and how they should go about ending it.

HRM: What damage can an employee with an addiction do to an organization?

PS: Employees with a substance abuse problem and/or addiction are 30 per cent less productive than employees without addiction.  They are also late to work three times more often than their peers and are absent from work five times more than their peers.  The rate of presenteeism, where the employee is present, but not as productive, is also much higher.  They are also more likely to be involved in a workplace accident.
Remember that addiction affects the entire family, so an employee may be affected by their son’s or daughter’s, husband’s or wife’s, or parent’s addiction.  They are also more likely to be away from work and to suffer from distraction and loss of productivity.

The good news is that addiction is treatable and the outcomes for many are very good.  Once supported in treatment, an employee in long-term recovery is often one of the most grateful, engaged, and productive member of the team.

HRM: What signs should an employer look out for?

PS: Distractibility and lack of concentration are signs that the employee is preoccupied with something other than their work.  Again, those signs can be present for the individual who is addicted or a family member who is worried and affected.  It’s often the case that a pattern of absenteeism can be detected – for example, the first shift after a break.

For regular work weeks, frequent absences or tardiness on a Monday morning is a tell-tale sign.  Alcohol and other drugs can have different affects, but generally it’s important to notice any sudden behavioural and/or mood changes.  Whether or not it’s because of alcohol or drug use, it’s important to understand what may be contributing to them.

HRM: What should an employer do if they suspect an employee may have an addiction?

PS: Any supervisor or manager should be able to have a direct conversation with their employee any time there is a question or concern about their performance or behaviour at work.  If an employer thinks that an employee may have an alcohol or drug problem, that should be no different.  The more open and non-judgemental a manager or supervisor is with an employee, the more likely the employee will feel comfortable with being honest about their problem.

The trick is to identify if there may be a problem and to put steps in motion to address it.  It’s not the role of a manager or supervisor to counsel the employee themselves, but to identify if there is a problem and follow through to address it.  If a co-worker who is not a supervisor suspects their co-worker may have a problem, it is important for them to report their concerns to a supervisor or manager.  Covering up or not reporting concerns may actually be enabling the individual and that may lead to prolonging their problem.

HRM: What steps should an employer take if they are certain?

PS: It is important for an employer to take action if they are certain an employee is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction.  It’s their responsibility to the employee and to the organization.  Most employers will have medical and/or EAP contacts who can assess the problem and recommend a treatment option.

For an employee with an alcohol or drug addiction, an abstinence-based treatment program combined with corporate reporting and abstinence monitoring is the gold standard.  At Renascent, we have found that individuals who have embraced abstinence-based treatment and recovery with the support of their employer are usually more motivated to maintain their sobriety and have better outcomes.  Because we support the organization in developing, along with the employee, an accountability agreement – often referred to as a “last chance agreement”, the employee is aware not only that their organization has supported their treatment, but as an employer and not a treatment agency, has very specific expectations and requirements for continued employment.  This transparent contract allows for clear and straightforward communication and performance management once the employee has returned to work.

HRM: Is there any demographic of worker more at risk of developing an addiction?

PS: Not really.  Like diabetes or any other chronic health condition, addiction doesn’t discriminate and can be found in every neighbourhood, postal code and hence, in every workplace in Canada.  While there are some workplaces that report higher drug and alcohol use because of normative use patterns in those industries, alcohol and drug addiction can hit every workplace and individuals in every socioeconomic status.

To address workplace drug and alcohol use “norms”, an organization can have a significant impact by having clear and well understood alcohol and drug policies in place and in action.  At Renascent, we help organizations develop and implement these policies BEFORE there is a problem.  This is hugely beneficial to the organization when there is an incident where they need to refer to the organizational policy.

HRM: After an employee returns to work following treatment, how can an employer support their ongoing recovery?

PS: A woman once shared with me her experience of returning to work after receiving residential treatment for addiction.  Her first day back was the same day a colleague of hers was returning to work after being off for cancer treatment.  She noted that her co-workers and her manager were tip-toeing around her and uncomfortable in talking about her experience.  In contrast, all the co-workers gathered in the small lunch room with a cake to welcome her colleague who was a cancer survivor back to work. Obviously, not everyone wants a cake upon their return to work, but this story reminds us to think of an employee returning to work after receiving addiction treatment as we would for an employee with any other health issue.

Stigma and discrimination are important factors in influencing whether an employee is open and honest about their problem and influencing how they return to work.  At Renascent, we support the supervisor/manager as well as HR staff in ensuring an employee’s return to work experience is good for the employee and for the employer.

How an employee transitions back into the workplace sets the stage for their relationship with the organization for months and years to come.  The best thing an employer can do to support the employee upon return to work is to prepare in advance and be ready with following the right steps (e.g., open communication that is supportive and not intrusive, clear and straightforward communication supported by the “last chance agreement” contract that was mutually developed).

Remember, an individual who is working, one day at a time, to embrace sobriety and recovery is being hypervigilant about their own mental health. They are actively working a program of recovery every day and this shows in their performance and commitment. An employee in long-term recovery will often stand out as among the most loyal, committed and productive members of the team.

Dr. Patrick Smith will be co-hosting a keynote presentation on “Demystifying mental health” at the upcoming HR Leaders summit. Joined by employment lawyer Lorenzo Lisi and two prominent HRDs, the panel will feature four distinct perspectives and tackle some of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of this increasingly common issue.

To find out more about the 2015 HR Leaders Summit, due to take place next month, click here.

About the Authors

Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email