Legality or Risk? The Workplace Approach to Drugs and Alcohol

by | Feb 14, 2022 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

Research has found that 27% of people say their alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the pandemic.

An interesting part of the research, and one that’s often overlooked with the headlines, is that those with increased alcohol consumption also generally had a higher workload, had experienced a change in their caring responsibilities, or were no longer attending their normal workplace.

Supporting employee wellbeing is reliant on wellbeing strategies reflecting the pressures and issues that employees face.

Though the picture for drug and alcohol misuse may be considerably different compared to that of August 2020 when the research was conducted, substance use and misuse is an integral part of any wellbeing strategy/offering. 

The outlook

An impact assessment paper found the calculated cost of lost productivity due to alcohol in the UK to be around £7.3 billion per year.

Around three-quarters of organisations have a specific policy on drugs and/or alcohol, with half also having a disciplinary procedure for alcohol and/or drug-related issues.

Worryingly, only 33% provide information for employees about sources of support for drug misuse, and only 30% provide guidelines for managers on how to deal with disclosure and signpost support.

The true scope of drug and alcohol misuse is unknown, which makes it likely that it is affecting far more employees than commonly thought – but where is the support and training to tackle drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace? 

The legalities

The term ‘drug/alcohol misuse’ can become muddled by interpretation, but it is important to note that not all of the individuals who use drugs and/or alcohol will misuse them or develop a dependency.

However, even infrequent use can impact the workplace in a number of ways, from increased absence to erratic workplace behaviour.

The use of substances can significantly impact an individual’s mood, thinking, behaviour, and physiology – which is why it’s so important to understand the legal basis first.

In terms of legislation, there are a variety of key pieces relating to drug and alcohol misuse at work, with the most notable and often quoted being the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

However, this law can seem difficult to apply to the current levels of drug use and the variety of drugs currently available, given that the act is 50 years old. Not to mention the changing nature of substance use with some not defined within a classification of this Act, the so called “legal highs.”

This is why focusing on the legalities alone is not enough – having actual policies in place can cover stages such as protection, prevention, support, and intervention – even when considering the duty of care.

 Duty of care

The common law duty of care means that employers should take reasonable care of all employees.

When it comes to drug and alcohol misuse, an employer that allows an employee to continue working whilst under the influence could not only be breaching their duty of care, but also liable for negligence.

This is why having clear policies around drug and alcohol misuse is so essential, as it outlines responsibilities and processes in a way that is applicable to both the employer and the employee. 

How can you develop a drug and alcohol policy?

Drug and alcohol misuse shouldn’t be viewed solely under a legal basis because it removes the ability for an employee to receive support and can be, for all intents and purposes, reductive.

The key to a drug and alcohol policy is to make the most of opportunities – harm minimisation/risk mitigation, early detection, early intervention, and support – to support an employee even in the event of disciplinary action.

Larger organisations have the benefit of occupational health support, EAPs, and even specialist counselling services in some cases.

Smaller organisations can be more limited in the support they can offer and will have to consider options that can be impactful but less expensive, including flexible working so that employees can attend any appointments or support.

A policy should cover:

Rules on alcohol consumption: is alcohol consumption banned in the workplace, if so, have other contexts such as Christmas parties, networking events, and client meetings been outlined as potential outliers? 

Reporting process: are line managers or HR the first port of call when an employee discloses an issue around drugs or alcohol? What is the stance on confidentiality? The difference between an employee disclosing themselves versus another employee raising concerns should be discussed. 

Support available: any assistance programmes or other types of support should be outlined, including the way in which employees can access them. Signpost any other forms of external support, and any information on taking time off for support (e.g., attending AA meetings). 

Disciplinary action/consequences: if employees breach the rules in your policy, there needs to be a clear line on the consequences, such as dismissal. Additionally, it should be disclosed at which point supporting an employee moves towards a disciplinary approach. 

The bottom line

Aligning your drug and alcohol policy with your other workplace policies around health and safety, sickness and absence, and wellbeing – amongst other workplace policies – can be tricky.

However, it is important to clearly define the level of support you wish to offer employees, rather than simply resting on the legality as the sole solution.

Is there less risk involved when an employee is severely impaired, versus functioning at a slightly impaired level? Whilst the former is likelier to be addressed in legal policy and health and safety terms, the latter is overlooked regardless of how detrimental it may be.

Additionally, the legality of a substance can also play a huge role in the discrepancies –  someone taking illegal drugs at the weekend is still more likely to be sacked than an employee that may be under the influence of a legal high.

The level of support should not boil down to what is and isn’t socially acceptable, but instead, look at drug and alcohol misuse policies as the opportunity to offer support rather than focus solely on the more severe end of the spectrum.

Having a workplace culture that values support and a non-judgemental approach is far likelier to lead to a resolution or disclosure than a culture of indifference and judgement.





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