Impairment in the Workplace

Impairment in the Workplace
 Courtesy Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Courtesy Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Impairment in the workplace is a serious matter.

Impairment can be a result of several substances: alcohol, cannabis, prescribed drugs (authorised by a doctor), or proscribed drugs (illegal drugs).

Impairment is never acceptable at work, but it is important to realize that under Human Rights legislation addiction should be treated as a disability. If an employee is showing signs of impairment, you must act immediately to ensure the health and safety of everyone at the workplace. But once you have information or evidence to suggest an addiction, assistance should be offered to the employee in the form of medical treatment, encouraging participation in a recovery program, and giving the employee time off to recover. 

What if you suspect substance abuse issues? 

Dependency issues can present in many ways: 

  • Dangerous or erratic behaviour
  • Lack of productivity and/or motivation
  • Frequent lateness/absenteeism
  • Irritation
  • Increased secrecy or privacy
  • Lethargy 


Even if your employee does not come forward with a substance abuse issue, but you suspect they have one, you are under an obligation to investigate.

If you observe concerning behaviors in an employee, you should discuss the behaviour with the employee and ask for an explanation for their declining performance or erratic behaviours. Because of the sensitive nature of this conversation, you may want to have another supervisor or witness with you to observe and support you in this conversation. 

Once you ask, one of two things will happen:
  1. The employee admits to having an addiction: Being impaired at work is never ok. However, addiction is a protected ground (disability) under the Human Rights Code, meaning you cannot terminate the employee for addiction-related behaviour (i.e., showing up impaired or hungover), nor for poor performance related to their addiction. Once the employee reveals an addiction, you have a duty to accommodate and the employee has a duty to seek help, which may include counselling or a rehab program. An employee who takes a leave of absence to work on their recovery will be on a protected leave of absence. During a protected leave of absence, you cannot terminate an employee for seeking help. Should an employee with addiction refuse help and support, you may be able to proceed with a termination due to work performance and behaviour, but only following consultation with a lawyer.
  2. The employee does not admit to an addiction: In this case, after you have expressed your concerns about the observed behavior, you may be able to discipline and/or follow through with termination if they have repeatedly and willfully violated company policy. Prior to taking any disciplinary or termination action against an employee in this situation it is recommended you speak to a lawyer for advice. 


Employees protected under Human Rights legislation should not be treated differently than other employees, and it is critical that you maintain privacy surrounding this issue as you would with any other medical condition.


It is important to treat addiction with care and compassion, which can be difficult if you are feeling frustrated with the employee. 


You can discuss potential treatment options and what you are willing to do to help with the issue. You are not required to pay for treatment, but you can offer time off to attend appointments and meetings, and you can reassure them that their job is protected if they are required to go into full time rehab. You can point them towards local resources and professionals. You can also discuss your concerns with their addiction as it pertains to work (for example, access to narcotics if they work in a vet office) and ask if they share any concerns. From there you can develop an action plan that includes accountability and checkpoints to protect both you and the employee.


It is important that you offer as much support as you can in the employee’s recovery including the time they need to complete their rehabilitation program; because of the protected status under Human Rights their job will need to be available for them when they are cleared to return. 


Remember: A duty to accommodate addiction does not mean that you are required to allow an individual to come to work impaired. It does mean that you must work with them while they seek treatment and hold their job until they are well enough to work again. 

Where/how to get help

Depending on the substance your employee is addicted to, they may need a combination of counselling and detox, as well as rehabilitation therapies. Because of this, you may want to direct them to an all-encompassing addictions services provider.


An addiction counsellor provides consultation and works collaboratively with other counsellors, health care professionals and the client and client’s family. They aid in the identification and resolution of client/family care issues, cultural and language barriers, ethical dilemmas, and coordination and integration of care, making referrals to other service providers as appropriate.


It is your duty as an employer to accommodate and be helpful, it is also the duty of the employee to seek assistance in the form of rehabilitation. Ultimately, if they refuse and their performance at work suffers or becomes dangerous, you may be within your rights to terminate. Before doing so, CFIB highly recommends consulting a lawyer.


Do you have a Drug, Alcohol and Medication Policy? CFIB members can access a template, developed by the law firm Fasken, in our Member Portal

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is Canada’s largest association of small and medium-sized businesses with 95,000 members across every industry and region. CFIB is dedicated to increasing business owners’ chances of success by driving policy change at all levels of government, providing expert advice and tools, and negotiating exclusive savings. Learn more at

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