Are you thinking broadly enough when it comes to protecting employees from workplace impairment?

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue

When you hear the phrase workplace impairment, what comes to mind?  If you are like most people, you likely think about substance use, such as alcohol or drugs. And while this is one piece of the puzzle, it’s important that we broaden our thinking as leaders to consider that impairment can take many forms.

Consider, for example, mandatory rest hours for pilots or ship’s officers. These regulations are in place because it’s understood that fatigue can blunt our response times and lead to accidents or injuries.

Impairment by it’s nature is a threat to organizations of every size and industry, because good judgement is central to every function, from the receptionist and janitorial services, right on up to the corner office.  Today, in addition to addressing workplace impairment in a “normal” context, the pandemic has added a layer of complexity.

Lack of conventional schedules, stress, and even boredom have resulted in a uptick in Canadians aged 35-54 who report drinking more. Dulling our emotions through self-medication is bound to have an effect on our performance at work, so this is an issue leaders ignore at their peril.

The impact of alcohol related harms to the Canadian economy is estimated at a shocking $14.6 billion. Pre-pandemic, in 2018, close to 20 percent of Canadians aged 12 and older reported a rate of alcohol consumption that quantified as heavy drinking. A more recent poll, conducted in 2020 by Leger for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) found that the pandemic is amplifying the close relationship between mental health and substance use. One in three respondents who use alcohol reported increased use, with one in five reporting problematic use, while two out of five who use cannabis reported problematic use.

Any physical or psychological condition that negatively affects a worker’s capacity to perform the assigned function safely should be considered impairment. That extends to erroneous judgement that could cause an organization reputational harm; misplaced management decisions that sow seeds of discontent; or other behaviours that threaten the health and well-being of the employee and their colleagues.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggests that worker impairment can be the result of many kinds of temporary or short-term situations, such as:

  1. Experiencing the effects of substance use, including alcohol or other drugs (legal or illegal).
  2. Treating illness or using medication(s) with side effects (such as radiotherapy causing tiredness, or antibiotics causing nausea).
  3. Having fatigue.
  4. Being tired due to long work periods, or working more than one job.
  5. Experiencing the disruption to body circadian rhythm caused by shiftwork.
  6. Having a crisis in the person’s family.
  7. Assisting a child or a family member or having a young infant.
  8. Preparing for an external activity such as an exam or wedding.
  9. Experiencing shock or insecurity after a workplace incident, fire, or robbery.
  10. Having unresolved conflict with the employer, or among employees
  11. Experiencing sexual harassment or bullying
  12. Being exposed to extreme cold (results in lower mental alertness, less dexterity in hands, etc.) or heat (results in increased irritability, loss of concentration, loss of ability to do skilled tasks or heavy work, etc.)

Creating a safe, healthy and productive workplace for all employees requires leaders to be aware of the effects of impairment, and being on the lookout for signs and signals. This isn’t just critical for those in safety sensitive positions, like air traffic controlers or bus drivers. It’s also applicable to remote employees who may make decisions that have a knock-on effect on the livelihood of others, or key aspects of the organizational business.

Whether your organization is operating in person, remotely, or in a hybrid model, it is important to ensure that you have a full definition of workplace impairment, a comprehensive policy, and the right tools and resources in place to manage and mitigate this risk in your organization. Here are some concrete steps you can take to mitigate the risk of impairment in all its forms:

Define workplace impairment and fitness for work

If you thought workplace impairment could only occur due to substance use, there is a good chance that your employees feel the same. Clearly define what you mean by workplace impairment and fitness for work so there is no confusion. Talk openly about this issue and provide information and education to break down stigma and broaden perspectives. Include prescription medications, fatigue, overwork and other specific examples of causes for impairment so employees can better evaluate their situation against a stipulated set of criteria.

Develop a comprehensive policy

If you don’t have a policy in place, you need to create one. If you do, make sure it is up to date.

The CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network white paper, Marijuana in the Workplace: Conversations about the impact on employees and employers, notes, “Policies should be written in a way that leaves room for dialogue, consider the entire organization’s needs — not just safety-sensitive positions. Consult with stakeholders and watch what other organizations that are leading the way are doing.”

In light of our changing world of work, seek out those organizations that are leading the way in managing workplace impairment among home-based employees.

Understand the signs of impairment

The Canadian Human Rights Commission uses the following characteristics to describe potential signs of impairment:

  • Personality changes (e.g., increased interpersonal conflicts, overreaction to criticism)
  • Physical appearance (e.g., odour of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurred speech, poor coordination)
  • Working in an unsafe manner or involved in an accident/incident
  • Failing a drug or alcohol test
  • Consistent lateness, absenteeism, or reduced productivity or quality of work

Train all leaders how to manage difficult situations

Leaders are not responsible for diagnosing or fixing workplace impairment. However, it is our responsibility to ensure employees follow safe work practices and don’t place themselves, fellow employees, customers, or members of the public, at risk.

Providing training beyond policies and procedures to teach managers how to intervene and support employees showing signs of impairment is paramount. They should be clear on employees’ rights, the duty to accommodate, and their role in return-to-work cases of employees who were off the job because of workplace impairment. They should also know about and feel comfortable sharing resources that are available to support employees.

Educate employees on the definition of workplace impairment and make sure they know about and understand the policies and procedures you have in place

Reduce stigma and fear by educating employees on how the organization defines and manages impairment in the workplace. Don’t just focus on the punitive aspects of policies and procedures; highlight the resources available to everyone in the workplace and the supports that are in place to protect the human rights of employees who have a mental illness, a substance use disorder or are experiencing a stressful home-life situation that is causing exhaustion, fatigue or impaired judgement.

Reduce the risk from workplace factors

Identify and address workplace factors that might be contributing to impairment. For example, the MHCC’s guidelines for Building Mental Health into Operations During a Pandemic includes a checklist of tips for reducing the risk of fatigue among workers.

Take advantage of resources available from experts

The CSA’s recently-published Z1008, Management of Impairment in the Workplace, provides critical considerations for reducing impairment in the workplace and how to address it. This Standard outlines specific requirements for managing impairment in the workplace and provides guidance for following occupational health and safety management system principles. The Standard and an implementation guide and training are available at no cost on the CSA Z1008:21 landing page.

Check out Workplace Safety & Prevention Services resource page on workplace impairment for tips and assistance in building a policy.

Impairment is a complicated issue. Defining what it means and developing a policy that respects both the employer and employee takes time, and it requires a wide range of perspectives and expertise. However, developing the right policies and procedures and equipping your team with the tools and resources they need to support one another will go a long way toward creating a psychologically safe workplace.


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