Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction

Twin public health crises burning out harm reduction workers.

Ottawa, September 08,2022 -- Healthcare professionals, social workers and counsellors working in the substance use field are experiencing higher levels of burnout. A new study released today by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) says the drug toxicity crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are largely to blame.

Experiences of Harm Reduction Service Providers During Dual Public Health Emergencies in Canada. examines the benefits and challenges harm reduction workers across Canada are facing as they continue to deal with the concurrent opioid-related toxicity emergency and COVID-19 pandemic.

The study found harm reduction workers were experiencing burnout and secondary traumatic stress at levels greater than previous reports among multiple healthcare and caregiver professionals — even greater than those reported by hospital healthcare workers during the height of COVID-19. Secondary traumatic stress can result from hearing stories about traumatic things that have happened to others.

"When it comes to their jobs, harm reduction workers are presented with unique challenges," explains Dr. Sheena Taha, Interim Director of Knowledge Mobilization for CCSA. "They must provide a range of services to meet the various needs of people who use substances in systems that are not always set up to meet the spectrum of needs. I think it’s important to convey that despite these stressors and challenges, our study also found harm reduction service providers consistently reported obtaining great meaning and fulfillment from their work,"

The study proposes ways to improve our healthcare system while addressing the needs of harm reduction workers. These include:

A comprehensive healthcare system that integrates harm reduction services will increase access and better meet the needs of those using substances and those providing harm reduction services.

Sustainable and reliable funding for harm reduction services will allow for a continuity of services and will remove financial and planning stressors for program directors and staff.

Benefit providers ensuring counselling resources are sufficiently compensated and are gender-, trauma- and grief-informed will prevent further harm and ensure that the investment in these resources will have meaningful outcomes.

Continued evaluation of equitable staffing models and policies, as well as addressing structural vulnerabilities to burnout, such as job precarity and economic insecurity, will inform efforts to improve well-being.

Dr. Taha emphasizes that finding ways to support harm reduction workers is vital and can have a lasting impact on our healthcare system. "The proper support can benefit the overall well-being of harm reduction workers as well as the individuals they are trying to help, and in turn it will strengthen our broader healthcare system."

This report is the latest release in CCSA’s Substance Use in Canada series. Since 2005, the series has spotlighted key issues related to substance use and identified specific areas for action in both policy and practice, as guided by CCSA’s Scientific Advisory Council. The most recent releases in the series are Improving Quality of Life: Substance Use and Aging, Childhood and Adolescent Pathways to Substance Use Disorders and The Effects of Cannabis Use during Adolescence.

Media contact
Lee Arbon, Communications Advisor, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
Tel.: 613.266.5469 I Email:

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