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Six Steps to Effectively Approach an Employee with a Substance Abuse Problem

cityAre you concerned about an employee’s substance abuse problem, but not sure on how to talk to the employee about it? This is a situation that many HR professionals face on a regular basis. According to a survey conducted by the Hazelden Foundation, “54% of HR professionals believe that getting employees to acknowledge or talk about substance abuse is their toughest challenge.”

The truth is that this is a delicate situation and it can either be a successful intervention or a terrible one if not conducted properly. Our research indicates that the earlier a workplace intervenes when an employee is struggling with an addiction, the sooner their recovery begins. Bellwood’s research also indicates that an employee has a better chance at recovery when an employer is involved.

According to Bellwood’s Outcomes Studies, employees experience an 82% success rate when they are referred by an employer.[1] In addition, Bellwood’s research demonstrates an increase in productivity and decrease in absenteeism and lateness once the employee has successfully graduated from a residential treatment program along with six months of sobriety post-treatment.[2]


It’s in the best interest of the employer to follow these six steps when approaching an employee with a substance abuse problem:

  1. Identify deteriorating work performance: Some common signs of a decrease in work performance related to substance abuse are:
    • Frequent lateness
    • Too many lunch breaks
    • Often missing deadlines
    • Lower quality and quantity of work
    • Increase in errors
    • Wastes company materials
    • Increase in accidents due to unsafe behaviour
  2. Document performance problems: It’s not enough to have remembered times when an employee displayed behaviour that concerned the health and safety of that person and the workplace. Employers need to record on paper all the incidents with dates, names of those involved and details of instances that an employee’s suspected behaviour under the influence affected their work performance.Wendy Cope- Counsellor from Bellwood Health Services often tells employers, “You need to have behavioural observations, not subjective comments. By having objective measures the employee may have a harder time disputing the employer’s evidence.”
  3. Consult and prepare with appropriate stakeholders: Employers should have a substance abuse policy already in place for their workplace. In addition to developing a substance abuse policy, all stakeholders can:
    1. Provide education on substance abuse to employees
    2. Establish company wellness programs
    3. Ensure a respectful workplace that helps reduce the stigma that is associated with addiction.Consultation may involve the human resources and management departments, medical department, Employer Assistance professionals and union (if applicable). These individuals can determine who will be involved when approaching the employee, what information will be communicated and what are the employee’s rights in the given situation.
  1. Approach the employee: Should be done in a safe, confidential manner and at an appropriate time for the employee and all other parties involved. Remember, it is NOT the responsibility of the employer to diagnose, merely offer support and the evidence for concern within the workplace. Wendy Cope recommends employers to leave it up to the professionals to accurately diagnose and start treatment planning.
  2. Refer the employee to an appropriate treatment: Employer may research addiction treatment centres in Canada and offer options to the employee. Not all treatment centres are alike or have the same approach. ‘Most Important Questions to Ask a Treatment Provider’ offers some guidance on what to look for when selecting a residential treatment program. Once the appropriate treatment option is recommended to the employee, he or she can refuse or agree to accept your recommendation. It is the employees right to disclose information regarding their progress. It’s recommended that the employee allows the employer to be a part of their recovery so that they can both work cohesively to ensure that the employee’s return-to-work runs smoothly and is in accordance with medical recommendations.[3]
  3. Continue to monitor performance: Whether the employee declines or agrees to attend treatment, you still continue to monitor work performance. This will allow you to determine if the whole process worked or failed. If it fails, you proceed with your normal disciplinary procedure. If it succeeds, you’re employee will demonstrate an improvement in their work performance level.

The Canadian Labour Code states that as an employer you must ensure that “the health and safety at work of every person employed by the employer is protected.”  Lack of experience and education are some of the reasons why employers may avoid dealing with an employee struggling with an addiction. Talking to an addiction specialist that has experience working with employers, employee assistance providers, unions, HR professionals and occupational health professionals that have an employee with substance abuse or addiction, can help guide you and explain the level of support you legally and ethically should provide your workforce.

Providing support to employees struggling with addiction or substance abuse will:

  • Improve your workforce’s morale
  • Reduce accidents on the job
  • Reduce on-the-job errors
  • Avoid costs of dismissal and costs of arbitration
  • Reduce hiring and training expenses

Addiction can be treated successfully. Give us a call to discuss how we can help your workplace.



[1] Arbour Simone, Iryna Gavrysh, Hambley M. Janice, Adrian Tse, Ho Victoria, Bell M. Linda. Addiction Treatment and Work-Related Outcomes: Examining the Impact of Employer Involvement and Substance of Choice on Absenteeism, Tardiness, and Productivity. Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health. Vol. 29, Iss.1, 2014. Retrieved from:

[2] Arbour Simone, Iryna Gavrysh, Hambley M. Janice, Adrian Tse, Ho Victoria, Bell M. Linda. Addiction Treatment and Work-Related Outcomes: Examining the Impact of Employer Involvement and Substance of Choice on Absenteeism, Tardiness, and Productivity. Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health. Vol. 29, Iss.1, 2014. Retrieved from:

[3]Slavit, Wendy et al. An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse: Strategies and Treatment. National Business Group on Health: Center For Prevention and Health Services. (August 2009) Retrieved from:

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