Workplace considerations: Drugs and alcohol at work

According to Drinkaware, alcohol is the number ONE risk factor for ill health and premature death amongst 25-59 year olds. But the point here isn't to tell people not to drink, I'm not going to preach the benefits of not drinking - I like a drink myself. The point of this post is to shine a light on the risks of alcohol and drugs at work.

The results of drugs and alcohol in a work setting can be an issue not only for the user, but co-workers and even customers. Members of your organisation who misuse drugs or alcohol are statistically more likely to take time off, with alcohol being estimated to cause 2-5% of all absences from work (HSE). Using a depressant drug such as alcohol can also impact productivity, and increase the likelihood of accidents.

Drunk Jack Russel Dog
But as an employer, is it really your problem what your staff are doing outside of work? There's a few issues with this question, first of all, are you sure it's only taking place outside of work or are people consuming alcohol/drugs during the working day? Secondly, why are people within your organisation going too far with drink or drugs? Is it because of the stress caused by work or something else?

Employers have a legal responsbilitiy to look after the health, safety and wellbeing of their workforce. Putting the legal responsibility aside for just a second, if we can make a real difference in the lives of our colleagues, we should.

We're going to try and cover quite a bit of ground in this post, from the groups most at risk, the reasons people drink and take drugs before/during work to strategies for helping employees.

17 million sick days in the UK every year are due to alcohol: 200,000 people every day turn up to work hungover. (Drinkaware)


Groups most at risk

Now, which groups are most at risk from drugs and alcohol at work? We're going to start with age: workers (predominantly male) between the ages 0f 18-29 are at the highest risk, especially tradespersons.

Drinkaware report that UK industry is losing £7.3 BILLION per year through alcohol-related sickness absence. Now, the actual rate of loss depends on the industry, according to the Alcohol Rehab Guide those occupations which are most likely to be feel the impacts of alcohol:

  1. Bartenders = 2.33
  2. Shoe machine operators = 2.0
  3. Roofers = 1.87
  4. Painters = 1.85
  5. Cooks = 1.77
  6. Sailors = 1.75
  7. Construction labourers = 1.72

This is how many times more likely than average to die from an alcohol related death.


The effects of drugs and alcohol on the workplace

Some of us reading this post will have gone to work hung over and if you haven't - imagine for a moment trying to function in a meaningful way with that post-drink headache. Taking this into consideration, now imagine drinking or taking drugs while at work. Thinking about any time you've been able to feel the effects of alcohol, now try operating effectively within your role.

But what exactly are some of the impacts which can be felt throughout the organisation? Initially, staff who are misusing drugs or alcohol (when we use the term 'misuse' we mean the consumption of drugs or alcohol to the point in which it hinders their normal lives, be it personal or professional) are much more likely to take time off work.

As well as an increase in absenteeism, staff who do turn into work and either drink at work or are hung over from the night before could show signs of presenteeism, that is people working while sick, or otherwise incapacitated.

Anyone showing signs of presenteeism could display the following:

  • Lower productivity
  • Sleeping at work
  • Poor decision making
  • Increased number of injuries
  • Strained colleague relationships


Safety Critical Work

It is worth considering the safety-critical work of some roles, the Health and Safety Executive make it clear that any drugs and alcohol policy should be created against a risk assessment based on the work to be carried out.

Jobs which include the use of machinery, tools, ladders or heavy lifting equipment need to be given special consideration.

Anyone who drives for a living must also ensure they are safe and sober, not only in line with their own company's policy but wider drink-driving legislation such as the Road Traffic Act 1988, stating that any person who, when driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs shall be guilty of an offence.

Initially, if you find out a member of staff, who is carrying out a safety-critical role is under the influence while working, you should transfer or prevent them from getting behind the wheel, so to speak until the matter is resolved.

While the aim should be to prevent drinking/drugs use within any role at work, it can't be argued that the consequences of a delivery driver having a couple of drinks with lunch than a librarian.


How to identify alcoholism in the workplace

Drinking alone

There's no secret answer to identifying alcoholism or drug abuse in the organisation, we're looking for classic signs here. According to the Alcohol Rehab Guide:

• Appears hungover or is still intoxicated
• Lack of coordination
• Bloodshot or glossy eyes
• Slow pupil response
• Low productivity
• Unusual sweating
• Slurred speech
• Complains of being nauseous
• Looks paler than usual

Remember different drugs will have different side effects.


Workplace culture


There can be situations created at work through which alcohol or drug use could be used to cope with work-related stress and if this is potentially the case within your organisation, a review of the pressures being placed on staff may be required. It could also be down to your workplace culture, if there's a culture of blame, bullying or harassment this may push the workforce to over-indulge. You can read all of our posts on workplace culture here.


What are my responsibilities as an employer?

This is a difficult question, because in its most basic form, you have a legal responsibility to look after the  health, safety and wellbeing of your staff. Expanding on this, however a good employer will always want to help and improve the lives of their staff.

First of all, it will be helpful to treat any absence for treatment and rehabilitation as normal sick leave or better still, medical leave. This will help in reducing any unnecessary pain later down the line in terms of unauthorised absence, etc. Your next step should be to create a tailored drugs and alcohol policy for your organisation. ACAS have produced a checklist to help in the creation of your policy:

  • A statement that the policy applies to everyone within the organisation
  • The rules surrounding the use to drugs, alcohol or other substances at work
  • A statement that recognises that a drugs problem may be an illness to be treated as any other
  • Potential dangers to the health and safety of drug misusers and their colleagues if a drugs problem is untreated
  • The importance of early identification and treatment
  • Help available
  • the disciplinary position – for example, an organisation may agree to suspend disciplinary action, where drug misuse is a factor, on condition that the worker follows a suitable course of action
  • Provision of paid sick leave for agreed treatment
  • Right to return to the same job after effective treatment or to suitable alternative employment should the original role not be best for the employee
  • Assurance of confidentiality
  • The possibility of a second period of treatment if a relapse occurs
  • A statement that the policy will be reviewed periodically, carries the support of senior management and unions or employee representatives where required.

You can see the whole ACAS guidance here.

It is highly recommended to have a policy in place regardless of whether or not there are current signs of drug, alcohol or substance abuse within the organisation. You should consult workers and unions where appropriate. To sum up your responsibilities, you will be breaking the law if:

  1. Employee(s) are working under the influence of excess alcohol - Health and Safety at Work Act
  2. Controlled substances are produced, supplied or used on an employer's premises - The Misuse of Drugs Act
  3. Drivers, whether on the road or a transport system, if workers are under the influence of drugs, alcohol or other substances while working - The Road Traffic Act and the Transport and Works Act.


Strategies for tackling alcohol and drug abuse at work

Strategy meeting. There are different strategies for differing stages. Are we looking at preventative or corrective measures, meaning are there currently signs of substance abuse within your organisation? If we're looking for preventative or proactive measures, you may be wondering why invest now when this issue may never come to be? A primary reason for this is that higher training costs are consistently associated with drugs and alcohol in the workplace. Preventing higher insurance costs is also a valid reason.

We've already discussed having a tailored drugs and alcohol policy, but this is only a starting point. Creating a safe and open workplace culture is also vital. But here are some practical points on tackling such a sensitive subject:

  1. Treat leave required for rehab, counselling or other remedial action as medical leave rather than disciplinary. This will remove the pressure from the employee. Unison state that in this case a reasonable period of time off for recovery is agreed by both parties.
  2. Carry out alcohol awareness sessions - this can be built into your workplace culture plan. This can be used to review the drugs and alcohol policy and push for people to seek the help needed.
  3. Employers can encourage employees to seek the specialist support that may be required for someone with a problem with drugs and alcohol.
  4. Contribute toward the cost of treatment.
  5. See if Drinkaware can help.
  6. Screening tests - we'll get to this in the next section.


Screening for drugs, alcohol or other substances

Screening is a method for testing whether employees have drugs, alcohol or any other substances in their body. Screening can be done through urine (the usual method) or bloods. There are several points to consider when it comes to medical screening. Two of these considerations are the legal and moral standpoints. Morally, many unions do not condone screening for drugs and alcohol and we aren’t going to argue one way or another on screening. We are however able to discuss the legality around testing for drugs and alcohol, and who best to ask than the Health and Safety Executive:

First of all, employees must consent to screening for practical and legal reasons. Initially a clause should be included within the contract of employment as well as verbally telling potential new employees that screening may be required.

The HSE advise that screening for drugs and alcohol alone will not solve the problems caused by said drugs and alcohol and should be used as part of a wider health and safety policy. In essence, a combination of methods must be used to identify apparent potential or actual threats from drugs and alcohol.

Screening must be carried out properly to ensure samples cannot be tampered with by any means or contaminated by any other sources. Any testing procedures which are in place within your organisation have to be accurate. There can’t be any question as to the integrity of either the results or the person carrying out the test.

While employees can’t be forced to take a test, they can face disciplinary action should they refuse when an employer has grounds to request one. We aren’t going to go into what may or may not constitute grounds for requesting a screening.

Bourbon with ice
Referring back to safety critical work, employees in these areas may be automatically or randomly tested for drugs and alcohol depending on their work. Examples of safety critical work include drivers and heavy plant operators.

A couple of other things to think about:

  • It is important that no one person is singled out. This goes for groups of people as well, it is vital not to discriminate by gender, race or any other factors
  • Any routine or random search for alcohol or drugs must be carried out by someone of the same sex with at least one witness present
  • Any disciplinary action employees may face, must be known in advance of a demand for a test


So if you’re going to go ahead with screening, you must ensure that it is carried out lawfully and fairly.


To sum up

Here’s a list of legislation that ACAS have provided which could have an impact when it comes to drugs and/or alcohol at work:

  1. Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - section 2 - places a duty on an employer to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees.
  2. Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – Duty of care on an employer to assess the risks to the health and safety of employees. The impact of this legislation results in the potential prosecution of employers should they allow an employee to continue working while under the influence and their behaviour places the employee or others at risk.
  3. Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - makes it an offence for someone to knowingly permit the production, supply or use of controlled drugs on their premises except in specified circumstances (for example drugs prescribed by a doctor).
  4. Road Traffic Act 1988 - states that any person who, when driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs shall be guilty of an offence.
  5. Transport and Works Act 1992 - makes it a criminal offence for certain workers to be unfit through drugs and/or drink while working on railways, tramways and other guided transport systems.

If you are personally struggling with the use of drugs, alcohol or other substances take a look here. This will take you to the Narcotics Anonymous website, allowing you to ask the question Am I an Addict?


Speak soon,
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