How to manage addiction in the workplace

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Sep 2010

13 Sep 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Drug & alcohol misuse in the workplace

The impact of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace is a growing issue for many employers, occupational health and employee assistance professionals. Almost 20% of industrial accidents, for example, involve workers who have been drinking and the cost of drug misuse is estimated to cost the UK in excess of £20 billion - of which over £6.4 billion is borne by business.

Within the workplace, drug and alcohol misuse can have a negative impact on staff, their performance and overall productivity. And substance misuse can often impair judgement and people's ability to carry out tasks in and out of the workplace. Even where substances are taken only at the weekend, the after effects can last well into the working week.

How can employers identify problems?

Successful identification and management of substance abuse and misuse in the workplace is a critical issue for employers, managers and occupational health and employee assistance professionals. At present around 17 million working days are lost each year due to drug and alcohol misuse and, according to research by the IPD (Substance Abuse Survey 1998), a member of staff under the influence of drugs or alcohol will achieve on average only 67% of their working potential.

There are, of course, legal obligations for employers under common law, including the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), the Transport and Works Act (1992) and the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Under legislation there are two key issues for employers to consider. Firstly, is the employee working under the influence of drugs or alcohol in such a way as they impose a risk to themselves or others? Secondly, do they have a long-term drug or alcohol problem affecting health and performance?

Introduce a drug & alcohol policy

Having a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy will enable employees to feel confident they can report problems or concerns rather than keep them hidden. In my experience, regarding and positioning the problem as a sickness or capability issue rather than a disciplinary one and therefore approaching it in a non-judgemental way means employees are more likely to assist colleagues to seek assistance.

Organisations that promote and offer a self-referral employee assistance programme also experience higher levels of employees seeking assistance for substance abuse, particularly if it is beginning to have an impact on their work and home lives. During difficult economic times in particular, flagging up internal support mechanisms is useful to encourage self-referral.

Identify warning signs early

Where difficulties relating to drug and alcohol misuse and abuse are flagged up by colleagues, managers need to have the skills and support to be able to address the problem. Although determining problems relating to substances is not easy, there are a number of recognisable signs, as outlined by symptoms such as:

  • Sudden mood changes
  • Unusual irritability or aggression
  • Hand tremors
  • Increased mistakes and poor judgement
  • Confusion
  • Lack of concentration
  • Increased number of accidents
  • Poor timekeeping / increased sickness absence
  • Frequent absence from desk or post at work
  • Deteriorating relationships with colleagues
  • Dishonesty or theft (to support a habit)
  • Poor performance and reduced productivity
  • Deterioration of personal appearance
  • Noticeably persistent dilated or concentrated pupils with altered behaviour
  • Missed deadlines or production quotas not met

It's important to acknowledge that drug and alcohol problems can often have similar signs. With alcohol, there's sometimes the additional possibility of slurred speech and the smell of alcohol on clothing and breath. However, in both cases, it's important not to jump to conclusions; some of these signs can be attributed to other factors including stress, fatigue and depression.

Ensure managers are well supported

Identifying an employee with a drug or alcohol addiction or problem is just the first step. Managers play a key role when it comes to monitoring the work and conduct of their staff. And while they're not responsible for diagnosing the problem, they are well placed to identify conduct or behaviour that's out of character or causing workplace difficulties.

Having a workplace policy on drug and alcohol assists employers to fulfil their legal duty of care - to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). If an employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of excess or drugs or alcohol to continue working, for example, and this places the employee or others at risk, they are open to prosecution. Employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do.

Ongoing support mechanisms

Leveraging your workplace policy on drug and alcohol gives your managers (as well as the workforce in general) a firm structure and guidance to indicate how the business will treat and support an employee in these circumstances. It's therefore vital that everyone is aware of this policy.

The majority of drug and alcohol policies direct managers and employees to avenues of support and professional assistance. Larger organisations will often have employee assistance programmes and occupational health provision in place to provide staff with access to counselling and support. This, particularly in these tough financial times, will assist organisations to get valued and expensively trained employees back to work. This approach also ensures that individuals who are finding life difficult can access support at the earliest opportunity, thereby avoiding sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Consider how addiction may affect your business

There are a number of questions and issues you can consider to review how drug and alcohol issues may be affecting your workplace.

  • Does my organisation have a drug and alcohol policy?
  • Are managers aware of policies and are they trained and supported to implement them?
  • How do we train and support managers in relation to the policy and signs of drug and alcohol misuse? Are they better placed to manage situations and deal with issues at an earlier stage?
  • What are the legal implications to my business of an employee being in the workplace when affected by alcohol or drugs?
  • What staff support systems are in place? Are they well promoted?
  • How do we support staff who may be under increased strain from internal work pressures and the effects on family and home life of the economic climate?

It's only by increasing general awareness of issues relating to drug and alcohol misuse and abuse and it's potential negative impact on the workforce and workplace that things can begin to change.

Don't become an addiction 'enabler'

Too often, colleagues and managers can become 'enablers' - those who allow the alcohol or drug user to continue with the addiction without being responsible for their actions. Team members or supervisors may think they are being kind, but in reality they're simply enabling the affected individual to continue to engage in self-destructive behaviours. In addition to the risk factors involved, this can also have a negative impact on other staff.