Emerging Trends in Substance Use: Implications for Workplace Policies

In the constantly evolving landscape of substance use, it’s crucial for employers to stay ahead of trends, particularly with the ever-evolving prescription drug abuse and the emergence of new psychoactive substances by ‘creative clandestine chemists’. These situations present unique challenges for workplace policies, best addressed by a proactive and informed approach.

Understanding these substances, their effects, and the legal implications is critical to enable employers to develop strategies to maintain a safe and productive work environment. It’s important that the action taken is consistent with current best practices and remains so to support effective management and mitigation of the associated risks.

There are several actionable steps employers can take to enhance their workplace drug and alcohol program:

1. Conduct Regular Policy Reviews: Annually review and update your drug and alcohol policy to address current substance use trends and new testing options, especially with the growing prevalence of oral fluid testing. This is particularly important in light of recent case law decisions in this area.

2. Enhance Employee Education: Education programs for all employees are an employer’s first best defence against any legal challenge. Conduct annual sessions that are content-relevant, covering a wide array of substances, including prescription drugs and cannabis, and emphasizing their impact on workplace safety and productivity. Choose resources that are credible and knowledgeable, and formats that ensure learning.

3. Implement Comprehensive Screening Processes: This does not just mean testing, pre-employment or otherwise. Employer due diligence is shared by all employees. Make these processes active and intentional in the workplace. Emphasize the shared responsibility of awareness and reporting, and the potential liability of inaction.

4. Foster Open Communication: This starts at the top and is reflected throughout the culture of the organization. Use a health and safety approach that fosters support and return to work, not termination. Encourage an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing substance-related issues, including the misuse of prescription medications, without fear of stigma or retribution.

5. Offer Support and Resources: Check the specifics of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). Does it provide access to addiction specialists? Is it a “triage” coverage with a limit of 2-3 sessions or is does it include ongoing support? What about specialized counselling and treatment programs, private or public?

6. Train Management Effectively: Provide managers and supervisors with training to recognize the signs of substance use, including the more subtle behavioural indicators, and how to respond appropriately. Are there specific criteria for reasonable cause and post-incident testing? How comfortable are they in taking action? Do they know what to do and how to do it?

7. Collaborate with Health Professionals: Partner with external subject matter experts to gain insights into the signs of emerging drug trends and the best practices for action and support. Contract with credentialled professionals to provide services such as determinants of substance use disorder, case management and Return-to-Work monitoring and accountability.

8. Adapt Safety Protocols: To address the risks associated with new and emerging substances, it is critical to ensure that the safety priority is supported by effective protocols. Review what you currently have in place. Do your protocols address the evolving changes in substance use? How do you know when changes are required?

Attention to these elements will provide employers with insight into the effectiveness of what they currently have in place and help identify where changes may be warranted. Looking for some help with any of these topics? Book an initial consultation.