How to Manage Addiction in the Workplace

Canadian Human Rights Act 1998

As an employer, you are likely aware of your responsibility to protect your workforce from discrimination. The Canadian Human Rights Act (the Act) prohibits discrimination on several grounds, including disabilities such as mental illness and addiction. On a provincial level, the BC Human Rights Code (the Code) specifies similar duties under its jurisdiction – mainly that employers are expected to take all reasonable steps to avoid poor treatment of employees based on a personal characteristic.


So what if this characteristic is a substance abuse problem? Although mental illness and addictions are classified as clinical disorders, the cultural stigma behind these conditions often complicates our understanding of how to properly manage them within a workplace context. Disruptions to productivity or workplace culture are examples of costs that can incur from retaining employees with addictions, but it is important that employers understand the nature of the illness and explore the best ways to accommodate the employee or assist in treatment.


Situations involving employee substance abuse are often dealt with on a case by case basis. The very nature of the illness makes it difficult for some employees to come to terms with the disorder, complicating how they can manage it. Some employers will also struggle with confrontation due to fear of a negative reaction.


Although each situation has its own challenges, there are important things to consider when dealing with employees with addictions.



Establish Mutual Trust and Respect: Keep lines of communication open with your entire team so that they will feel comfortable coming to you with any professional or personal challenges they may face. Having an established level of trust makes it infinitely easier to confront any issues that may arise from symptoms of addiction or any other ailment.

Educate Yourself and Your Team: Explore information regarding the particular addiction or illness you are confronted with. Gather educational materials or resources including local support groups or treatment facilities. Make these resources available to all of your employees. Know what treatments may be offered by your insurance company.

Understand Your Rights and Responsibilities: Before taking action, it is important to know where you stand legally. Although there are legal and moral grounds to accommodate your staff, it is also important that you maintain the wellbeing of your entire company. Undue hardship for the individual or the organization are considerations when making decisions on how to act, including factors such as cost, health and safety. Speak to a lawyer and investigate legislation and policies that apply to your situation.

Take Action: If you are concerned about a possible substance abuse problem, do not hesitate to act. Ignoring the signs can often lead to much more complicated issues both for the individual and the organization. Organize a private meeting where the employee can feel safe discussing their condition, and make sure to be clear about your concerns, your company’s policies, and the resources you have gathered in support.


Check out the following resources for assistance and consult an HR professional if you have any questions or concerns regarding best practices. HR consultants are trained in mitigating the murky waters and can help guide employers to manage challenging situations for the benefit of individuals and organizations. (See Termination of Employment)


Addiction Resource


American Society of Addiction Medicine


BC Alcohol and Drug Referral Service



BC Human Rights Clinic


BC Mental Health and Addiction Info Line



BC Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services


Canadian Human Rights Commission





Here to Help – Mental Health and Substance Use Information