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Warning to employers: Drug, alcohol abuse soars during COVID-19

Friday, November 27, 2020 @ 2:43 PM | By Tom Yearwood

Tom  Yearwood %>
Tom Yearwood
Virtually every business across the country has been affected by COVID-19 and by the government’s response to the pandemic. Provincial health officers, heretofore largely unknown creatures, have become household names and, in some cases, media darlings. Such is the time when sports figures and celebrities are supplanted for names like Theresa Tam and Anthony Fauci. 

Uncertainty is abound in almost every segment of society. One thing that is certain though is the well documented increase in drug and alcohol use and, more worryingly, the new patterns of use that have developed since the initial lockdown. My belief is that both are here to stay — of that I am certain.

According to many experts, the new normal will include increased use of mood-altering substances but much more alarming than the initial spike is the emerging patterns of use which, as is commonly accepted, will create many health and social problems in the near future.  It is not a stretch to say that these changes will also lead to increased threats to workplace safety as well.


Dramatic increases in cannabis sales were reported in many jurisdictions at the start of the pandemic including a whopping 600 per cent increase in Ontario and while this huge increase in sales hasn’t been maintained many sources are reporting a 40 per cent increase year over year including in my home province of B.C

A recent meme reflecting the situation goes as follows: “If you had told me 10 years ago that the government was going to pay me to stay home and smoke pot I would have called you crazy” — according to the statistics, this is the reality for tens of thousands across the country.


As with cannabis, alcohol sales have also escalated and drinking patterns for many have changed to include day-drinking. This has become more commonplace as the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t has been blurred as a result of weeks and months of not working and “wine-o-clock” is getting earlier for many Canadians 

A Statistics Canada report released on Oct. 20, 2020, confirms a dramatic increase in alcohol sales. The demographic most affected is men aged 24 to 55 which will be of obvious concern to all employers but especially those in safety sensitive industries.

Another report, this one from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, summarized the impact of increased alcohol consumption as follows:

“In Canada and globally, the immediate fear of going without alcohol seems to have taken priority over concerns about developing alcohol use diseases and disorders or experiencing domestic violence. This designation is a stark reminder of the efforts needed and the challenges ahead to implement policies and regulations to reduce death, disease and injuries caused by the harmful use of alcohol. (My emphasis.)”

Illicit drugs

It is being reported by many agencies in the U.S. and Canada that illicit drug use has also increased with a major spike in overdose deaths in B.C. and elsewhere. The overdose rate is thought to have been affected by a change in drug supply routes and an increase in users outside of the “normal” cohort. There has also been an increase in the use of fentanyl by drug dealers (mixing or cutting it into other illicit drugs) and by direct consumption, something almost unheard of a few years ago. One U.S. agency cites a study which revealed a marked increase in opioid use as well as methamphetamines and to a lesser degree, cocaine, with fentanyl continuing to lead as the cause of death.

Employer takeaways

As an employer it is incumbent on you to exercise a heightened awareness of the health and safety threats posed by the dangerous increases in substance use in the general population. There is no reason to believe that your workforce is exempt from the findings across the country and around the world.

This concern applies primarily to those employees who have been off with little to do, and a lot to worry about, but don’t ignore those who have continued to work in that their home life may have been disrupted by COVID as well.

My recommendations include the following:

1. Communicate with all of your employees, including those who have been temporarily laid off, highlighting the current trend at it relates to health and safety;

2. If unionized, work with your local(s) in getting the word out;

3. Dust off your employee and family assistance program and make sure that employees of all ranks are aware of what services are available;

4. Meet with returning employees and outline the help that is available, if needed, and remind them of your expectations set out in your drug and alcohol policy;

5. If you don’t have a drug and alcohol policy now is the time to get one;

6. Consider pre-employment testing, and testing returning workers, if you are not already doing so.

With so much uncertainty in the world, and without a timeline for a return to normal, it is unsettling to know that many of the pandemic’s consequences will last long into the future including changes in drug and alcohol consumption and patterns.

Tom Yearwood, LLB, is the president and CEO of Denning Health Group and has been working with industries across the country in policy development and testing programs for 25 years. Reach him at 604-763-4558 or e-mail him at

Photo credit / Pheelings Media ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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