How should employers tackle workplace addiction?

Written by
Changeboard Team

05 Jul 2010

05 Jul 2010 • by Changeboard Team

How does addiction affect British business?

A survey by DrugScope and Alcohol Concern found that 27% of employers say drug misuse is a problem at work, but the reality is that the use of illegal drugs is often exaggerated. The British Crime Survey showed that 5.3% of the working age population use illegal drugs regularly, but many of these individuals are unemployed or on Benefits, while most of the others restrict their use to weekends.

Current research seems to show that use of illegal drugs while at work is very low, although the impact on workplaces of individuals who do can be extremely damaging.  Among people who are at work, the use of prescription drugs is much more common. An estimated 1.5 million people are addicted to prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the UK. A large number of others use them occasionally. Many of these drugs can have a significant effect on performance, concentration, or alertness.

Alcohol addiction in the workplace

The biggest addiction problem in UK workplaces by far is alcohol misuse. Indeed, 60% of employers say they have experienced problems due to staff drinking alcohol.

In an NHS survey, 25% of men reported drinking over 8 units and 16% of women reported drinking over 6 units on at least one day in the past week. It's estimated that between 3% and 5% of all absences are lost each year due to alcohol, which equates to about 8 to 14 million lost working days in the UK each year. 

Why does addiction matter to business?

Drinking can affect productivity and safety. Alcohol consumption may result in reduced work performance, damaged customer relations, and resentment among employees who have to cover work for colleagues as their productivity declines because of their addiction. There are no precise figures on the number of workplace accidents where alcohol or drugs are a factor, but both are known to affect judgement and physical co-ordination.

Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can reduce balance and impair concentration and alertness. Indeed, in the emergency services or jobs involving dangerous machinery, employees have long been banned from drinking before or during work.

But dont make the mistake of thinking its just about protecting levels of productivity or managing alertness. Employers have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their staff. A good employer will also want to assist any employees who have a drug or alcohol problem.

What are the warning signs of addiction?

Some of the signs to look out for include poor timekeeping, lack of judgement, impaired memory and confusion. Changes in personality such as sudden mood changes or over-reaction to criticism and physical signs such as loss of appetite and lack of hygiene may also indicate drug or alcohol problems.

If individuals who previously showed no such signs, suddenly start arriving late for work, become aggressive, or display any inappropriate workplace conduct, you should discuss your concerns with them.

The link between workplace stress & addiction

However, it's important to remember that these signs may have many possible causes and are not evidence of drug or alcohol misuse on their own.

An overworked or stressed individual may suffer similar symptoms, and while it is necessary to identify the problem, you should not use the signs alone as the means to diagnose staff problems. Also stress and addiction can be related, as many people use alcohol or drugs to help cope with work-related stress, so if there is a problem with alcohol or drug misuse in your workplace, then this may be part of a wider stress problem.

We strongly recommend that training on how to spot the signs of addiction is included in management training for line managers in your organisation, so people are more switched on to issues as they arise and they are also aware of the appropriate response.

How should employers deal with workplace addiction

But what is the appropriate response to concerns about addiction in the workplace? The answer is of course dependent on your business, but the key to dealing with addiction sensibly, fairly and legally is to have a clearly thought out and well developed policy, which has been approved and understood by the majority of staff.

If you are starting from scratch, and a worrying number of firms currently have no drugs or alcohol policy in place, it's important that the Benefits of creating a policy are precisely laid out for staff at all levels. The policy itself should be easy to understand, free from legalese and jargon, and include clear actions and pathways to be taken based on identified circumstances. Ideally, employees should be consulted during the development of the policy.

Few people will object to a policy that is introduced in the interests of safety and customer services but if you fail to get commitment across all levels of the organisation, its unlikely to be successful. As a large proportion of alcohol consumption that affects work takes place during employees leisure time, policies have to have employee buy-in and be sensibly implemented.

Implementing an addiction policy in the workplace

Once you have a policy in place that has the backing of your employees, to ensure that you feel that your staff and your business are protected, its vital that you dont bury it in a drawer.

It needs to be communicated to existing staff at regular intervals and new staff should be introduced to the policy, and the recommended actions, during their induction. This policy should be discussed and explained during management training so that the companys approach to addiction is not piecemeal, but is set up to protect at-risk individuals and to protect the organisation as a whole. 

Without a policy in place, employers are leaving themselves exposed, their staff unsupported and managers facing addiction problems in their teams without clear direction. With so much clear evidence that a policy is essential, the question remains, why so many employers do not have a drugs and alcohol policy to deal with the issue.

For more information on best practice for dealing with addiction in the workplace go to: