Alcohol and drug use is a serious social issue that can affect the safety and wellbeing of everyone on your work premises. Having a clear policy in place can help prevent accidents related to substance misuse.
When employees abuse drugs or alcohol, they put themselves and their colleague's health at risk. This could lead to serious workplace accidents, legal claims and reputational damage.
In this guide, we'll look at the risks associated with drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace, how to limit them and how to support staff struggling with substance misuse.
What is drug or alcohol abuse?
Understanding the signs of drug and alcohol misuse is one of the first steps towards managing it. Employees suffering from alcohol dependency and drug related problems can struggle to stop it affecting other parts of their lives.
Misuse is not the same as dependence. However, employees that are dependent on drugs, alcohol and other substances often misuse them.
By definition, substance misuse is described as 'a pattern of using a substance that causes significant problems or distress'. While it can be hard to restrict what your employees do outside of the workplace, it's up to you to ensure that their personal choices don't disrupt their work performance.
What are the signs of drug and alcohol misuse?
There are a few warning signs that may indicate that an employee is misusing drugs, alcohol or other substances. These can include:
- Frequent unauthorised absences.
- A general change in behaviour.
- A drop in productivity (often sudden and unexplained).
- An increase in accidents or near misses.
- Performance or conduct issues.
Some of these issues can happen for a range of reasons. But if they are occurring frequently, ask an employee's line manager to keep an eye on the situation.
If it hasn't improved after a reasonable period of time you may need to investigate further. This could be a few weeks or potentially months depending on the severity of the situation.
What is a drugs and alcohol policy?
A drugs and alcohol policy aims to inform employees about the rules surrounding the use of drugs or alcohol in the workplace. This policy applies to all controlled drugs and substances including prescribed medication, illegal drugs and 'legal highs'.
The policy should offer advice to workers who are struggling with substance misuse. This could include signposting to support networks like an EAP or occupational health service that can help support staff with addiction. It should also outline the consequences of alcohol and drug misuse such as .
Your policy should apply to all workers although certain elements such as frequent testing, may only apply to some. For example those with roles that present serious safety risks.
What does the law say about drugs and alcohol misuse at work?
Drug and alcohol misuse can seriously impact an employee's health & safety. It could also lead to them putting others such as colleagues or customers in serious danger.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSW), employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of themselves and anyone who could be affected by their actions. This includes ensuring they are fit and safe to work.
Other laws such as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and The Road Traffic Act 1988, also cover drug and alcohol misuse at work. Specifically those who drive or operate heavy machinery as part of their roles. If an employee is hurt following a drug or drink driving accident on your premises, you may be liable for legal damages.
Can employers test employees for drugs and alcohol?
Yes, employers can test their employees for drug and alcohol use. However these tests should be administered fairly and cannot unjustly target individual employees.
If you wish to introduce drug and alcohol testing you must include this in your staff contract or employee handbook. Your policy must state:
- Why you are testing employees.
- How the tests will be carried out.
- The actions you will take following a positive result e.g disciplinary procedure.
Can employees refuse a drug or alcohol test?
Yes, these types of tests are not enforceable by law. This means that employees can refuse to take them if they so wish. Refusing to take a drug test can however lead to
Some employees may have frequent drug and alcohol tests written into their contract due to the nature of their roles. For example, employees in safety roles or positions where they're required to operate a work vehicle. In this instance, refusing to take a test can be seen as a breach of contract.
Drug and alcohol use outside the workplace
It can be hard to control what an employee does in their own time outside of work. But when this behaviour begins to impact their work performance it must be addressed.
For example, if an employee is drinking heavily into the night, they may still be drunk when coming into work the next day.
Substance use at workplace events
There may be some instances when employees are permitted to drink alcohol for work purposes. This could be during a client dinner or while at a work party or social.
It can be hard to ban alcohol consumption from work events. However, a work party is an extension of the workplace, so any illegal drug use or other gross misconduct could leave employers liable.
Management must make employees aware of what is expected of them at these events.
What to do if an employee comes to work intoxicated?
If you suspect that an employee is under the influence of alcohol or drugs at work this should be addressed immediately.
Psychoactive substances can have a huge effect on an employee's cognitive skills. This means they pose a serious risk to their colleagues around them.
Be aware of the signs
Early identification can help avoid very serious accidents. Especially if the employee operates heavy machinery or a work vehicle.
Sometimes alcohol and drug use is easy to spot. Slurred words, a lack of concentration or a strong smell associated with a substance is often a sign of intoxication. Other times it could be as subtle as a drop in work performance.
Some substances make intoxication difficult to spot, especially legal or prescribed drugs. However these can be just as damaging to an employee's health & safety, and can massively affect their ability to perform a role.
Speak to the employee
If you have concerns that an employee may be under the influence, you should act quickly to avoid an incident. Being intoxicated during work hours is a huge health & safety risk. If you have concerns, address the issue with the employee immediately.
Once made aware of your suspicions they may admit that they are dealing with substance abuse. In some cases, addiction can be classed as a disability so employers would have to follow an entirely separate process. Going through disciplinary could amount to discrimination
If they are under the influence of alcohol or other substances during their working hours, they should be sent home to sober up immediately.
If they deny the claims then you should then conduct a full investigation. This should be done before carrying out any disciplinary action. It's always best to err on the side of caution. If they are exhibiting any suspicious behaviour that could be dangerous, they should be sent home to ensure the safety of their colleagues.
Deciding on a course of action
If an employee is spotted taking drugs or drinking alcohol on work premises, this could be considered gross misconduct and could lead to summary dismissal. Once the employee is sober you can ask them to return to work so that you can discuss the consequences of their actions.
Depending on the circumstance, it can be beneficial to adopt a supportive approach. While being intoxicated at work might require disciplinary action you should consider alternatives dismissal. This could include demotion or a final written warning.
How to support staff struggling with drug and alcohol issues
Dealing with the issue is the best way to help support your employees. That's why it's best for management to report and address the behaviour before it becomes a larger issue.
Let's explore the best ways to do this:
Develop clear and consistent policies
Creating a clear alcohol and drug policy is the first step towards tackling the issue. All your staff should be aware of what is and isn't acceptable workplace behaviour and the consequences of breaking these rules.
Your policy should also include how staff can report suspected alcohol or drug use to management.
Create a supportive workplace culture
The treatment of your staff should be one of your top priorities. When staff are happy and supported they're usually more engaged and productive.
Encourage your staff to seek guidance and provide appropriate support to staff struggling with alcohol and drug misuse. Line managers and other senior members of staff should be trained on how to spot the signs of substance abuse.
This can help them offer support and advice to staff on the effects that drugs or alcohol misuse. If a line manager suspects that an employee is suffering they should direct them towards an occupational health service or their company's employee assistance program (EAP).
Follow disciplinary procedures
An employee misusing substances during working hours is a serious disciplinary matter. Following your company's disciplinary procedure can help address these issues.
While addiction is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, be aware that long term addiction and substance misuse might constitute a disability. However this is only in certain circumstances.
Under employment law, a disability is classed as any physical or mental condition which has a substantial and long-term effect on someone's day-to-day activities. Keep this in mind when actioning punitive measures to avoid claims of disability discrimination.
Get expert advice on drug and alcohol policies from Peninsula
Alcohol or drug use is a serious social issue which can affect staff in the workplace. The misuse of substances can have a serious effect on the health, safety and wellbeing of your staff.
Fail to address these issues and you could be at risk of workplace accidents, costly claims and legal fees as well as reputation damages.
Peninsula offers expert advice on helping creating a drug and alcohol policies. Our HR team offers unlimited 24/7 HR employment services which are available 365 days a year.
Want more information? Seek advice from one of our HR advisors. For further information, call on 0800 028 2420