We often consider impairment to be the result of substance use or dependence or addiction to alcohol or drugs – both legal and illegal. However, impairment can and often is the result of various situations that are sometimes temporary or short-term.
Issues that may distract an employee from focusing on their tasks may include mental and physical fatigue, traumatic shock, medical treatments and/or conditions, and family or relationship problems. These may not be related to a substance, but often the resulting impairment is equally unsafe.
Temporary impairment like those listed above can cause distraction, inattention, or making inappropriate decisions while at work.
When does a supervisor need to respond to impairment?
In general, if there is a risk to the employees safety or the safety of other, the supervisor needs to intervene. For example:
Does the person have the ability to perform the job or task safely (e.g., driving, operating machinery, use of sharp objects)?
Is there an impact on cognitive ability or judgement? (However, you need to consider if this could be the effect of a known medical condition or procedure – if so, you can and should remove the employee from the task, but you cannot initiate any progressive discipline.)
Each situation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis because sometimes impairment symptoms are immediate, other times, it is a pattern of behaviour that is a concern. Either way, you and your company need a clear statement of what is considered impairment in your workplace, and it should include the following characteristics:
- personality changes or erratic behaviour (e.g. increased interpersonal conflicts; overreaction to criticism)
- appearance of impairment at work (e.g., odour of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurring, poor coordination)
- working in an unsafe manner or involvement in an incident
- failing a drug or alcohol test
- consistent lateness, absenteeism, or reduced productivity or quality of work
See the table below that outlines the common signs and symptoms of impairment. These indicators, used alone or in combination, do not necessarily mean that an employee has an impairment or substance abuse problem, but they may be indicators of trouble and/or the need for help.
Signs and Symptoms of Problematic Substance Use
(not specific to any causal agent)
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“A Toolkit to Address Problematic Substance Use that Impacts the Workplace” – ACCA