Are Drink and Drugs Addressed Properly in the Workplace?

by | Jul 22, 2022 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

“Let’s go for drinks after work!”.

“We’re celebrating a company win!”.

“It’s the Christmas party!”.

When it comes to alcohol and drugs in the workplace, there is undoubtedly a double standard in the UK.

The drinking culture and cultural attitudes around drug use are, for the majority, quite lax, particularly for certain “party” drugs and alcohol

In many cases, most of us will have personal experience – through ourselves or family members and friends – or know others who have used drugs to some degree.

Societally there are lines, of course… no pun intended

There’s a significant difference between John the investment banker doing cocaine at the weekends and an employee who is genuinely struggling with drug addiction.

And part of this problem stems from the culturally acceptable ‘recreational user’ who partakes in drugs for certain social occasions and the user who is reliant and dependent on their drugs to the point where it impacts their personal and work life.

And that’s before we get into the attitudes surrounding these party drugs and so-called harder narcotics.

But why does this matter, and how can it be addressed in the workplace?

Drinks because it’s a… birthday? Work milestone? Monday?

In the UK, the first port of call for any celebration is usually an alcoholic beverage.

And whenever the weekend rolls around, there’s assumed to be alcohol or other drugs involved for specific occasions, being strongly associated with clubs and city nightlife.

But at which point does a recreational/social approach to drugs become one that is viewed as harmful and worth intervention, particularly in the workplace? How many ‘functional users’ are in the workplace? 

The statistics

To put the issue into context, here are some statistics relating to wider drug use in the UK and its impact on the workplace:

          Drug abuse costs the UK £15bn per year, with the total combined costs of alcohol and drug abuse costing £21bn.

          60% of all poor job performances and 40% of industrial accidents are linked to substance abuse.

          Lost productivity due to alcohol misuse in the UK costs around £7.3bn per year.

When it comes to the workplace, the statistics are even more surprising when held against common beliefs.

          70% of substance abusers are in full-time employment.

          15% of workers are drunk at work at least occasionally.

          45% of workers under 40 have experimented with illegal drugs.

          27% of employers say drug misuse is a problem at work. 

This issue isn’t specific to one industry, either.

The industries with the most problem drinkers (according to UK Addiction Treatment Centres) are:

          Construction, mining



          Leisure & hospitality

          Business, installation, maintenance & repair

Industries with the highest rates of drug use are:

          Food preparation and serving


          Arts, design, entertainment, sports & media


          Installation, maintenance & repair

These differences can also come down to a split between the type/classification of work, with women in routine jobs (e.g., cleaning or sewing machinists) facing 5.7x the chance of dying from an alcohol-related disease than women in white-collar industries.

Similarly, men whose jobs are classified as blue-collar face 3.5x the risk of dying from an alcohol-related disease than those in managerial positions. 

Why does this matter?

There can often be a perception that drug and alcohol misuse affects only a small portion of the workforce when in actuality it is extremely common.

Studies even show that alcohol-related work problems come from social drinkers, not people dependent on alcohol – many of our societal perceptions of what drug and alcohol misuse looks like are incorrect and potentially harmful.

After all, if someone is performing poorly at work due to being hungover – which increases the frequency of sick days, sleeping on the job, trouble with tasks, and issues with colleagues – we might not even be aware of it if we don’t think it’s a potential issue in the first place.

Does your organisation have a clear policy on substance misuse, and if so, how is this being managed?

 Managing drug and alcohol misuse

A CIPD survey found that only 33% of employers provide information for employees on sources of support for drug and alcohol-related problems, with little investment in line manager capability to manage and support those struggling with alcohol and drug misuse.

Nearly all forms of support that organisations offer, according to the survey, are likely to be provided to an employee when they inform the organisation of their problem, rather than it being identified by someone else.

Unsurprisingly, many line managers may feel unequipped to manage any process in which an employee discloses an alcohol and drug issue – meaning that there is little to no proactivity with the approach.

So, what can be done?

           Clearly outline your policy and the support available

Most organisations will have some form of a policy in place for drug and alcohol misuse, outlining expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable and the consequences of unacceptable behaviour/actions.

However, does your organisation outline who an employee can go to if they have an issue, or is there signposting to indicate where they can get help?

Is there a clear differentiation in your policy between disciplinary measures versus support for individuals? Research indicates that around a fifth of employers see alcohol and drug misuse primarily as a performance/disciplinary issue.

Instead, it is important to treat drug and alcohol misuse as a combined performance/disciplinary and health and wellbeing issue (e.g., training line managers for situations in which an alcohol/drug misuse issue is disclosed by an employee, rather than immediately beginning a disciplinary procedure).

           Focus on prevention

The most proactive organisations have considered and assessed:

          Employee workloads

          Stress levels

          Line manager training (recognising signs of stress and how to support employees)

          Integrate drug and alcohol misuse into their wellbeing policies and programmes (by encouraging employees to reduce potentially harmful drinking and drug use, alongside other wellbeing efforts)

          The working environment and how it can contribute to an employee’s willingness to seek support

          The implications of having alcohol as a means for celebration at work events (and how to appropriately handle heavy alcohol consumption at work social events) 

The bottom line

There isn’t any one look or action that can indicate alcohol or substance misuse, and public perception and stereotypes can often hinder organisations when it comes to addressing these issues.

Rather than simply operating with a more disciplinary approach, it would be more advisable to start utilising a preventative model in which line managers can feel confident supporting employees, and employees can feel comfortable seeking support.

Though later steps could be taken to ensure maximum effectiveness (e.g., referral to specialist treatment or rehabilitation), the approach starts with the organisational culture and the way in which alcohol and substance misuse are perceived and treated.

Or, we could simply carry on testing and firing.  

You decide.









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