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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Substance Use and the Workplace

Ways to increase well-being and reduce risk

Bette Reimer

Reprinted from the "Workplace" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (3), pp. 27-28

Alcohol and other drug use affects workplace safety and performance. Substance use is linked to workplace injuries, absenteeism, poor productivity and job turnover.1 But it is important to note that, just as substance use can affect performance, the workplace can affect health and well-being,2 including behaviour related to alcohol and other drug use. A stressful work environment and poor supervision, for instance, may contribute to problematic substance use.1

Some organizations in Canada have put in place drug-testing programs to address substance use in the workplace. However, these programs have not proven to be effective in determining whether a person is fit for work. Other factors, including fatigue and failure to follow procedures, also affect safety. For these reasons, other approaches are preferable for preventing accidents and helping employees deal with issues that may affect their performance.3

So, what is an alternative approach that would both reduce risk and increase health and well-being in the workplace?

A health promotion approach

Studies show that healthy employees are good for organizations. Poor health weakens productivity4 while well-being is linked with good job performance.5 Given this, it’s no surprise that workplaces with a happy and engaged workforce are associated with lower turnover and higher productivity.5

Health in the workplace is influenced by the interplay of various factors: physical environment, workplace culture, organization of the work, and individual choices and behaviours including personal health practices. How work is organized and managed, for example, may impact an employee’s stress, which in turn may affect their health and productivity.2

A health promotion approach offers a way for employers to influence multiple factors that increase employee well-being and address safety and performance issues. Health promotion is about enabling people to increase control over their health. Effective health promotion strikes a balance between personal choice and social responsibility, between people and their environments.

A comprehensive approach to workplace health promotion involves the efforts of both employers and employees. Employers need to create a supportive environment and employees need to care for their own well-being. It’s most effective when multiple strategies address interconnected areas of occupational health and safety, voluntary health practices and organizational culture.6

Here are some practical strategies7, 8 to help address safety and performance issues, increase employee health and build a supportive workplace environment.

Healthy workplaces

Workplace health is nurtured by ensuring practices contribute to a positive and well-functioning work environment.

  • Enhance practices that promote well-being and reduce risk of harm and injury.
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures on substance use and safety issues.9, 10 Areas to address include alcohol and other drug use related to the workplace, how to recognize troubled employees, and support for treatment and recovery. Regularly review how workplace practices might influence risk and make changes to minimize the risk. Encourage individual responsibility and safety. For example, discourage drinking on-site after work hours, practice responsible hosting at workplace social events, conduct regular safety audits and attend to all factors related to safety.
  • Build an environment of inclusion.
  • Engage employees in identifying concerns and issues related to the work environment. Involve employees in developing policies and guidelines. Develop communication mechanisms that keep employees informed, and that also provide avenues for employee input and for acknowledging their input.

Healthy employees

Employee well-being develops in contexts that encourage personal responsibility and build individual capacity.

Help people to manage their own personal health effectively and to support others. Examine all policies and processes in relation to the goal of helping people to increase control over their own health. Promote personal responsibility for health and provide resources and supports. This might include information about community resources, access to an employee and family assistance program, or flexible working conditions. Encourage peer support mechanisms.11 Engage employees in exploring ways they might support each other, both informally and within more formal structures such as a peer support program. Help employees to understand the impact of substance use on performance and safety, including the potential effects of prescribed and over-the- counter medications. This might include providing print and other media sources of information and facilitated discussions.

  • Implement practices that diffuse immediate risk related to harmful substance use and then address the underlying issues. The former might include a “fitness for work” plan and the latter a brief intervention and referral strategy.
  • Make sure supervisors have the skills to intervene and make appropriate referrals when employee performance may be affected by substance use. Provide straightforward and confidential access to treatment, recovery and support services.

All of the above strategies are important individually, but it is collectively that they have the greatest benefit. Adopting a comprehensive approach to workplace health promotion provides a framework for planning and implementing complementary activities that interact with one another to help reduce risk and increase health and well-being. It offers a way for employers and employees to work together to build a healthy workplace.

About the author

Bette is a Research Associate with the Centre for Addictions Research of BC. She is a member of a team that communicates current research on substance use in a way that supports the development of effective policies and practices

  1. Midford, R., Welander, F. & Allsop, S. (2006). Preventing alcohol and other drug problems in the workplace. In T. Stockwell, P.J. Gruenewald, J.W. Toumbourou et al (Eds.), Preventing harmful substance use: The evidence base for policy and practice (pp. 191-205). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  2. Shain, M. & Suurvali, H. (2001). Investing in comprehensive workplace health promotion. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
  3. Macdonald, S. (2009). Drug testing in the Canadian workplace. Visions, 5(3), 23-24.
  4. Burton, J. (2010). WHO healthy workplace, framework and model: Background and supporting literature and practices. Geneva: World Health Organization.
  5. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L. & Keyes, C.L.M. (2003). Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 205–224). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  6. Health Communication Unit, University of Toronto & Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. (2010). Comprehensive workplace health promotion: Affecting mental health in the workplace.
  7. Alberta Health Services. (2010). Workplace health and wellness.
  8. Centre for Addictions Research of BC. (2013). Helping people who use substances: A health promotion perspective.
  9. Alberta Health Services. (2010). Alcohol/drug policy development and employee testing.
  10. Atlantic Canada Council on Addiction. (2011). Problematic substance use that impacts the workplace: A step-by-step guide and toolkit to addressing it in your business/organization.
  11. Alberta Health Services. (2010). Workplace peer support.

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