Impairment in the Workplace: What to Look For

Impairment in the workplace is often a delicate matter. On the one hand, impairment that is caused by an addiction, the use of prescription drugs to combat an illness, or even severe stress may trigger a duty to accommodate on the part of the employer. On the other hand, depending on the duties of the employee, it may also be a real safety concern both for that employee and those they work with.

It is important that employers and managers know what to look for so that they may have an appropriate and timely response.

What is considered impairment in the workplace?

Most of us think of impairment as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol with the telltale signs of slurred speech, unsteady gait, or glassy eyes. And while this certainly falls under the definition of impairment, impairment actually encompasses a much wider range of issues.

Some causes of impairment may also include:

  • Side effects from medications or chemotherapy, such as nausea and brain fog
  • Physical or mental fatigue
  • Disruption to sleep patterns
  • Stress due to family crisis or other personal issues
  • PTSD from events such as robbery or fire
  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold which results in decreased mental alertness or loss of dexterity

Because impairment can be caused by such a wide array of issues, workplaces should have a clear statement as to what constitutes impaired behaviour. According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the following are potential signs of impairment:

  • Erratic behaviour or changes in personality
  • The appearance of impairment (e.g. the smell of alcohol, red eyes, poor coordination, etc.)
  • Working in an unsafe manner
  • Failing a drug or alcohol test
  • Reduced productivity or regular lateness and absenteeism

In some cases of impairment, there will be immediate and obvious signs, while at other times, there will be a subtle pattern of behaviour that gives rise for concern. While not all of these indicators necessarily mean that your employee is impaired, these could indicate that there is another underlying issue.

Generally speaking, employers who notice these indicators should consider whether there may be a safety risk to the employee or to others.

Signs and symptoms of impairment may be categorized as physical, psychosocial, and performance-related:

  • Physical signs may include an employee’s hygiene, odour, poor coordination, unexplained bruises, complaints of headaches or abdominal cramps, tremors, and slurred speech.
  • Psychosocial signs may include isolation from co-workers, mood swings, inappropriate emotional responses to situations, irritability, confusion, lack of concentration, lying or making implausible excuses.
  • Performance-related signs may include frequent absenteeism, errors in judgement, excessive mistakes, non-compliance with company policies, and changes to work quality.

Responding to employee impairment

As an employer, it is not your role to diagnose possible causes of these symptoms, but rather to simply determine if an employee is impaired and take steps to ensure their safety in accordance with your company policy.

If you suspect impairment to the employee’s ability to do their job safely, consider having a private and non-judgmental conversation with the employee. You may also need to arrange for medical assistance if necessary or a safe ride home. If you are sending the employee home, you should also consider calling their emergency contact.

When your employee is ready to return to work, you will have to assess the need for accommodation.

Contact TeksMed today

Does your company have a disability management plan and return to work protocol that includes impairment caused by substance dependency and other health issues? At TeksMed, we can help you develop these programs and help ensure that your employees have access to the medical assistance they need to help them recover and return to work. Contact us today to learn more.

Recent Posts