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Professional offers tips to aid in identifying substance abuse disorder in the workplace

Angela Gismondi
Professional offers tips to aid in identifying substance abuse disorder in the workplace

A former addict turned substance abuse professional discussed how to recognize the signs of substance abuse disorder in the workplace at a recent Ontario construction Leadership Conference.

The conference was hosted by the Ontario General Contractors Association and the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association in Mississauga, Ont. March 6.

“Anyone who has this condition is going to display these kinds of behaviours, they can’t help it,” said Julian Toy, who used drugs daily for 16 years. “When I was using and the hundreds of addicts and alcoholics I’ve worked with over the years, not one of them could conceal these traits, they are universal among people who have the condition that I have.”

He discussed the subtle indicators of a moderate to severe substance use disorder and impairment. He told employers to pay attention to attendance, performance and behaviour.

One of the classic symptoms for people who are using marijuana regularly is called amotivational syndrome, a fancy term for people who are not motivated.

“After chronic, heavy cannabis use people aren’t as interested in doing things,” said Toy.

“Some of the ways this will present in the workplace and on the jobsite, you will notice there will be an indifference or lack of motivation to complete tasks. They will often forget assigned tasks and need frequent reminders and they may not share a supervisor or foreman’s sense of urgency to meet deadlines.”

Another sign of marijuana use is if workers are consistently taking breaks away from a designated smoking area.


I used to specialize in faking back injuries to get WSIB and free narcotics,

— Julian Toy

Substance Abuse Professional


“I would approach that crew, talk to them a little bit more, be asking questions and seeing if there are any physical signs of impairment because I would be suspicious of them not wanting to take that break with everybody else,” Toy said.

Outbursts and conflicts with coworkers and supervisors are classic signs of substance abuse issues.

“People with moderate to severe substance use disorder find it very difficult to get along with other people,” Toy noted. “One of the main reasons for that is because there is a lot of selfish behaviour associated with someone who has this, they are often not concerned about anybody but themselves and that places them in conflict with coworkers.”

It’s often a noticeable overreaction to something that would not typically make somebody angry, he added.

“Look for the extreme behaviours that don’t meet your expectations of what you are used to on a jobsite,” said Toy. “When you see people deviating from that, especially if they’re really angry, it’s really worthwhile to take a closer look at that employee’s attendance records and behaviour because there is something going on with that person.”

A shift in core personality is another sign.

“One of the ways to be able to tell this is a company sanctioned event where there is drinking, one of the things you will notice about someone who has this addiction is as soon as they have one drink, they don’t have to be drunk or impaired, you will feel uncomfortable around that person,” said Toy. “Someone who is not an addict, their personality doesn’t fundamentally change when they have a drink, they are just themselves they may be a little more demonstrative.”

“The more you know somebody the more likely you are to notice it,” he added. “You will feel uncomfortable but you won’t be able to put your finger on it.”

Resisting efforts of accommodation and going on short term or long-term disability can be another indicator of substance abuse.

“I used to specialize in faking back injuries to get WSIB and free narcotics,” said Toy. “What I would do is stay at home and drink and drug all day.”

He said employers should pay attention when employees take longer than necessary to recover from a claim.

“Once they are on a claim, for instance, and you notice it’s run far beyond what your normal claim would run, they’re not getting better, they’re not going to appointments or medical examinations, there may be something going on,” Toy noted.

In terms of recognizing impairment at the workplace, Toy said workers may make special effort to avoid contact with supervisor, attempt to ignore a supervisor’s presence by staring straight ahead or trying to act too nonchalant.

“These are classic signs of avoidance and anybody who is feeling guilty about their conduct would likely engage in some of these signs,” said Toy.

“Lowered eyes, slumped shoulders, slow hesitant response to questions, all of these things are indicators if someone is feeling guilty. Why are they feeling guilty is the question you need to ask yourself and take a closer look at what is going on with that employee.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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