The Trouble With Not Knowing: When Substance Use Becomes an Addiction

My primary role as a Workplace Drug, Alcohol and Cannabis Consultant is to educate. One of the key areas of this focus is to help people understand that addiction is not a choice, a momentary lapse in morals, or a character flaw. It is a mental health disorder requiring a medical approach to treatment – similar to the approach applied to most medical conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes, for example.

Substance addiction is significant and prevalent. It is identified in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association), for those of you who want to know the standard diagnostic source reference used by licensed healthcare professionals who treat people with mental health disorders. Each specific substance is addressed as a separate use disorder (e.g., alcohol use disorder, stimulant use disorder, etc.). This standard identifies the criteria for Substance Use Disorder (SUD) on a continuum from mild to severe – which is how addiction specialists will word their determination of substance addiction in their reporting to employers. This information is essential to know because it guides subsequent actions, is the first step to appropriate management, and informs the Return-to-Work (RTW) process.

Why and how is all of this relevant to a workplace?

Substance addiction is a disability, a protected ground under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An employer cannot discriminate on these grounds and has a duty to accommodate the employee – to the point of undue hardship. So, that begs the question: How is substance addiction determined? Well, many employers have Human Resource specialists tasked with figuring this all out; others have safety professionals and/or disability case managers who are relied upon to make this determination.

Any medical determinations made by any of these individuals subjects an employer to legal challenge, and rightfully so. Not to mention the problem that arises when employees who do not have health professional designations or qualifications access the personal and private medical information of other employees. This practice is not uncommon in many workplaces. It is important to remember that such information is protected under privacy and health law legislation, or both, depending on the province(s), state(s) and countries in which your organization conducts business. As you can probably begin to see – or have already figured out – this could go wrong in so many ways.

So, what’s the solution?

How does an employer begin to address the requirement to know if an employee has a substance use disorder? A determination of addiction needs to be made by an experienced and credentialled health care practitioner who meets the established criteria of a Substance Abuse Expert (SAE).

An SAE is usually contracted by an employer on an “as-needed” basis. The SAE is the appropriate health professional specialist to conduct a face-to-face assessment. When this is not possible, a videoconference may suffice as the next best option. After completing a comprehensive assessment, which usually requires 2-3 hours, the SAE determines whether an employee has a substance addiction. This highly specialized health professional’s involvement is the pivotal element of any effective health and safety-based Drug and Alcohol Program.

Reach out to Nadine for help with managing this whole process. Book an initial free consultation here.