What is Workplace Impairment?

By Alana Smart / June 14, 2022 / Blog ,

What is Workplace Impairment?

June is National Safety Month; the annual observance that focuses on creating a safer environment from the workplace to anyplace sponsored by the National Safety Council. The second topic in this month-long series is on Workplace Impairment.


Workplace impairment has been a hot button safety issue for decades, but until recently, employers were mainly focused on substance misuse. Employees with substance use disorder do not have to actively use drugs and alcohol on the job for there to be negative implications in the workplace. Approximately 11 million workers employed full-time in the United States struggle with substance use. These employees may not be able to concentrate, may engage in needless risk taking, and participate in workplace violence. Those who are hungover or experiencing withdrawal symptoms can suffer from decreased alertness, attention, and productivity. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that drug and alcohol abuse causes 65% of on-the-job accidents a that 38 percent to 50 percent of all workers' compensation claims are related to the abuse of alcohol or drugs in workplace. Additionally, of the workplace deaths in the U.S., 10 to 20% have a positive result when tested for drugs or alcohol postmortem.

While assisting these employees who are struggling with substance use disorder is important to ensure the safety of everyone in the workplace, impairment does not only apply to substance use or abuse. In 2020, the National Safety Council assessed what “impairment” truly means, and after surveying employers they found that 93% agreed that a broader definition that includes health and wellbeing was needed.


What is classified as an impairment?

In this broadened definition, a workplace impairment is anything that could impede an employee from being able to function typically and safely. While substance misuse undoubtedly falls within this definition, other factors such as fatigue, mental health issues, and stress can contribute to an unsafe work environment.



Getting six hours of sleep or less triples your risk of causing an accident. While many people don’t realize how little sleep they are getting or how much it is affecting them, about 40% regularly fall into this category. According to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, workplace fatigue can lead to “slowed reaction time, reduced vigilance, reduced decision-making ability, poor judgment, distraction during complex tasks, and loss of awareness in critical situations”. Fatigue also affects employee’s mood and subsequent behaviors. Fatigued employees may be easily frustrated, irritable, and impulsive which can lead to conflicts. Long-term fatigue can also lead to long term physical conditions which may require absence from work and increased medical costs.


Mental Health Distress

Mental distress can encapsulate many different conditions; however, the two most widely reported disorders are anxiety and depression. Two years living and working through a pandemic appears to have taken its toll and the number of individuals experiencing mental distress appears to be growing. A recent estimate from the Centers of Disease Control and Preventions’ Household Pulse survey reported that 27% of Americans have experienced symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression within the last two weeks. This is in stark contrast to the 10.8% of U.S. adults who displayed these symptoms in the same time frame in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Employees who are in mental health distress may have increased rates of absenteeism, loss of productivity, and show signs of poor concentration, disorganization, and apathy on the job. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression has caused $1 trillion worth of lost productivity globally. Employers who invest in strategies to address mental health, may increase net benefits. “For every US$ 1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$ 4 in improved health and productivity.”

To find out how much mental health distress is costing your organization, visit NSC’s mental health cost calculator



The American institute of Stress reports that more than 90% of employees experience workplace related stress, and almost a third of those employees describe their stress as “high” to “unusually high”. Many recent reports correlate this outstanding level of stress to one of the leading factors in the Great Resignation. Many individuals who recently left their jobs did so in hopes of finding a position that would lead to less stress. Workload, interactions with coworkers, job security and work-life balance are all commonly reported causes of stress at work.

Workplace stress not only effects the day-to-day operations of work environments, but it can also lead to physical illness for employees. Long term stress has been linked to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, mental health issues, and obesity. The combination of stress and its physical outcomes lead to a marked increase in missed workdays.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 18). Mental health - household pulse survey - covid-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm

Ramchand, R., Pomeroy, A., & Arkes, J. (2009). The Effects of Substance Use on Workplace Injuries. International Labour Organization. Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_protect/---protrav/---safework/documents/publication/wcms_633233.pdf

Reilly, J. (2014, September 1). Drug Testing & Safety: What's the connecti. Occupational Health & Safety. Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://ohsonline.com/articles/2014/09/01/drug-testing-and-safety.aspx#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20Department%20of%20Labor,alcohol%20or%20drugs%20in%20workplace.

Workplace stress. The American Institute of Stress. (2022, April 13). Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental health in the Workplace. World Health Organization. Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/promotion-prevention/mental-health-in-the-workplace

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