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Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace – Are You Sure There’s No problem?

The effects of drugs and alcohol in society at large has always presented problems. In moderation, it can make an evening enjoyable, in excess it can cause violence, social problems and breakdowns in health that have wide ranging impacts. It’s also a topic that gets overlooked in the workplace though it can have a significant impact there too, creating risk both to the individual concerned and to those around him or her.

Most employers, unless their industry requires it, do not have a drugs and alcohol policy in place. Hangovers are largely dismissed with a laugh and a joke and sick time after a ‘long weekend’ is a regular occurrence. But sickness and absence due to drugs or alcohol can be a sign that someone is becoming dependent and has other issues that need to be addressed. According to Government statistics, businesses lose some 17 million working days a year through alcohol misuse or abuse. That costs our economy over £7 billion a year.

Should You Have a Workplace Policy?

Heavy drinking can affect your health. We all know that. What’s more, it is often difficult to discern whether someone has a problem or not and if this is being carried over into the workplace. In many businesses, you don’t find staff drinking either on the job or when they go out for lunch. But that doesn’t mean drinking when they go home isn’t damaging their performance when they turn up for work in the morning.

Whilst as a business you may think that as long as something doesn’t impede a workers performance then it should be left well enough alone, the consequences of drinking or taking drugs long term can be catastrophic for the individual concerned. GPs and health care providers now use a simple risk assessment for heavy drinkers to make them aware of the damage they are doing to their bodies. This has proved successful in bringing down intake and making people with a problem more aware of the consequences.

Of course, drinking heavily or taking drugs could be, and generally is, symptomatic of other problems. It could be due to problems at home that are difficult to cope with or it could be the environment the individual finds themselves in at work with high level stress and the inability to cope without a drink first.

Most businesses employ a heath professional when they feel there is a problem – either when there has been an incident at work or when they smell alcohol on an employee’s breath. There is growing opinion that alcohol and drug problems, and the potential of them developing to serious levels, should be part of the strategy of any business. Staff should be monitored and problems tackled before they get too out of hand.

This includes providing advice on the impact of excessive alcohol or drugs and self-assessment which has been shown in the past to decrease usage by individuals. It can also help to reduce sickness and absence over the long and short term for alcohol related illnesses.

Developing an Alcohol and Drug Policy in the Workplace

There’s no doubt that this can benefit many businesses. It needs to be clear and well designed but having the policy in place can make sure that problems are addressed quickly rather than brushed under the carpet and valued employees get the support they need on time. In research carried out in the United States, they found that introducing a drug and alcohol policy combined with self-assessment proved very economical. For every $1 that was spent in setting up and running the policy, companies saved something in the order of $4 in lost revenue through sickness and absence. That’s a pretty big return on investment by business standards.

Should Your Business Be Testing for Alcohol and Drugs in Employees

This can be a difficult area, legally and ethically. For industries that have a high degree of safety, testing procedures and strict alcohol policies are generally a given. For office workers who provide admin, sales services or answer queries in a call centre, it’s not so clear cut. Testing is a good way to back up a company alcohol and drug policy but is by no means where you should start. You need to get in place the support and policy first and engage employees with this.

If you are going to start testing then you need to get everyone on board and explain why it is so important. You also need to make the right decisions about who to test and when to test and they need to be carried out fairly, scientifically and ethically. There also needs to be a clear path for recovery if someone has been found to have high levels of alcohol in their blood stream whilst at work. This is often beyond the remit of many businesses as they simply don’t have the expertise in place or the time and it is one reason for the use of a third party occupational health provider to help develop policy and testing procedures. 

Providing Support and Guidance

Whilst self-assessment may well bring the drinking habits of many of your employers into line, there are always going to be incidents where personal and mental health issues combine and create a problem. There’s no point in having great policies in place if you are not going to provide those suffering with the additional support and guidance they need. An alcohol or drug problem does not occur overnight and can take a long while to develop before it begins to affect behaviour and performance in the workplace.

For businesses who want to tackle this very important issue then understanding is paramount. Helping to promote employee welfare in the first place so that influencing factors such as stress and wellbeing are covered can not only help guard against drink problems starting but can also give staff the confidence to come forward when they do have an issue.


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