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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.

Employers Can Take a Leadership Role in Workplace Accommodation

A harm-reduction activist’s view

Brian Mackenzie

From "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 26

Historically, our laws dealing with alcohol, opioids, cannabis and other substances have changed. But our changing laws reflect our social and economic priorities, not any underlying truth about the nature of substances or substance use.

Advocates for harm reduction have argued for changes in drug policy, including the introduction of safe-injection sites, the legalization of medical marijuana and greater user self-representation. The BC Human Rights Code now protects employees from discrimination on the basis of an addiction. But we still have a lot of work to do to combat the stigma of substance use.

Employers have an opportunity to play a leading role in this social change—by changing how substance use and recovery are supported in the workplace.

Many of us use substances for medical or other reasons—and we all have to work. One of the ways we can achieve a more supportive workplace is to normalize certain types of substance use and recovery.

In many cases, complete abstinence is neither possible nor medically recommended. For example, someone who uses cannabis for medical reasons may have to use cannabis every day. An employee on a methadone program may have to take daily supervised doses. Employees who need such a substance to function in their daily lives are likely to be working at the same time that they are using the substance—just as someone who takes medication daily will take that medication before going to work.

As an employer, ideally you should:

  1. Educate your staff. Combating stigma, recognizing our own prejudices and changing how we view substance use begins with education. Contact the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) about education programs that can be hosted in your workplace.

  2. Create a safe environment for disclosure. An employee is not obligated to disclose a mental health or addiction issue unless it has a negative impact on their work. But if the workplace is a safe place to request support before there is a problem, support systems can be proactive rather than reactive. Your employees need to know that you are committed to helping—and that their job security and privacy are not jeopardized just because they’ve disclosed a mental health or other medical issue.

  3. Focus on function. Regardless of what substances your employees use in their daily lives, your focus should be on how well your employees are able to do their job. If they are doing their job well and their interactions with colleagues are positive, this is what is important.

  4. Consider the family. Your employees are members of wider social networks. Supporting an employee means making sure that, if appropriate, the employee’s family and friends are involved in any support programs you establish.

  5. Encourage employee autonomy. Look to your employee for guidance. Ask your employee to suggest appropriate accommodations, and know that these may have to be modified as medical needs and treatment programs change over time.

About the author

Brian is a peer support worker and has been a harm-reduction activist for more than 20 years. He lives with his partner on the Sunshine Coast

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