Managing Substance Use In The Workplace

BC’s tourism and hospitality industry is known for many things, including helpful, friendly, warm, welcoming staff who are always ready with a smile. Unfortunately, like many other sectors, substance use negatively affects our industry through absenteeism, lost productivity, and health and safety concerns. Whether dealing with an employee who is impaired on the job, taking a prescription medication, or managing an addiction disability, it is important for employers to understand and address the impact of substance use on the workplace. In light of the rapid and significant changes to the legal status of marijuana, in particular, many employers are left wondering how best to manage the competing concerns.


Employers are entitled to expect that their employees will report to work with the capacity to safely and acceptably perform their assigned duties without any impairment or limitations due to the use of drugs and alcohol. This includes recreational use, prescription use, and all other forms of consumption or ingestion. Where an employee has a physical or mental disability that may require an adjustment of duties or responsibilities, an employer is required to accommodate the employee to the point of undue hardship.

Many employers may not be aware that the use of drugs and alcohol among tourism and hospitality employees appears to be quite common and takes many forms. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that, among American adults employed full time, a higher percentage of those working in the accommodations and food services industry reported having used illicit drugs in the past month (19.1%) and having exhibited symptoms consistent with a substance use disorder in the past year (16.9%), as compared to those in any other industry. Further, 11.8% of those in the accommodations and food services industry reported heavy use of alcohol in the past month, a higher proportion than any other industry except mining (17.5%) and construction (16.5%).

Implementing a drug and alcohol policy for the workplace is the best way to ensure that managers are ready to take appropriate action if and when a problem related to substance use arises at work. Legal advice is recommended during this process.


The following elements should be given consideration in the design and implementation of a workplace drug and alcohol policy:

  • Affirm the employer’s commitment to workplace health and safety and explain how alcohol and drug use may affect the workplace.
  • Communicate to employees the expectation that they will report to work without impairment and explain that “impairment” can include any limitation on their ability to do their jobs safely and effectively.
  • Advise employees of the consequences of failing to meet this expectation (i.e. disciplinary action).
  • Identify any roles or responsibilities with heightened concerns for employee or customer safety and consider whether additional requirements may be appropriate for employees in those positions.
  • Encourage employees who may have a physical or mental disability to seek accommodation from the employer if needed – this could include, for example, informing the employer of possible side effects from a prescription medication or requesting time away from work to attend treatment for an addiction.
  • Remind employees of any resources available to them – general health information, benefits provided by the company’s health insurance plan, access to the employee assistance program, etc.


The second step is ensuring supervisors have the proper knowledge and training to recognize signs or symptoms indicating that an employee’s use of alcohol or drugs may be affecting performance in the workplace.

While good management practices involve picking up on changes in attendance and any other red flags among employees that may indicate impairment or problematic substance use, Dr. Ray Baker, an associate clinical professor at the UBC School of Medicine, cautions that it is not up to management to diagnose an addiction or substance use disorder. “Good managers, though, should be able to identify changes in how someone usually operates – and that could be a change in attitude, mood swings or performance.” The key is to document these changes so that, if and when a discussion happens, Baker says, it can be done in a dignified, empathetic manner.

Once a clear policy is in place and supervisors have been adequately trained, the foundation now exists to responsibly address alcohol and drug use in the workplace.


If impairment is suspected in the workplace, many employers assume – incorrectly – that they are entitled to request a drug or alcohol test. In fact, testing for drug and alcohol use remains one of the most contentious contemporary issues in Canadian workplace law. In most cases, the appropriate responses to suspected impairment on the job may include immediate removal from the workplace (with safe transportation home), referral to counselling or an employee assistance program, medical assessment, and, in some circumstances, the imposition of appropriate discipline.


All workers are expected to report for work with the capacity to perform their jobs safely and effectively. While some work environments may pose heightened requirements for safety, a policy addressing the use of alcohol and drugs can be helpful in clearly outlining the rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees in maintaining a safe and productive workplace. Importantly, an addiction or other disability does not excuse an employee from his or her duties under the accommodation process.

Contributions to this article were provided by Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP. The information provided in this article is necessarily of a general nature and must not be regarded as legal advice. For more information about Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP, please visit