Firms put staff to the test as legislation looms

It’s
Monday and the usual suspects have failed to turn up for work. Could the reason
be drink or drugs? Possibly. To find out the extent of the problem, Personnel
Today has joined Alcohol Concern and DrugScope for an exclusive study. By Mike
Broad

Alcohol
and drug abuse at work is widespread and has become a serious business risk.

Ground-breaking
joint research by Personnel Today, Alcohol Concern and DrugScope shows that not
only does it cause staff absenteeism and lower productivity, but it can greatly
increase the likelihood of accidents in the workplace.

These
dangers are prompting employers to reconsider their approach to monitoring
staff and many are exploring the possibility of drug and alcohol testing.

Staff
absenteeism is the biggest problem employers are facing due to substance abuse,
claims the research.

Three-quarters
of the 306 HR professionals surveyed claimed that alcohol misuse has caused
staff absenteeism. It is estimated that the bill for this is more than £2bn a
year. Nearly a third of organisations have suffered drug-related absenteeism at
a cost of £800m.

HR
professionals are having to recognise that the problem is getting worse.

A
similar survey by Personnel Today and Alcohol Concern in May 1995 showed  62 per cent of organisations experiencing
absenteeism due to alcohol abuse.

Poor
performance is a major problem too, with 61 per cent of employers suffering due
to staff alcohol abuse and 27 per cent due to drug abuse.

Alcohol
abuse has led to permanent loss of staff due to ill health or dismissal in 30
per cent of organisations, and 16 per cent have lost staff due to drug abuse.

Although
77 per cent of employers now have policies dealing with drugs and alcohol, many
HR professionals are starting to question whether they are doing enough to identify
staff with the problems. More than two-thirds of HR professionals have
difficulty in recognising the signs of drug abuse.

Suzanne
Wright, HR adviser at News International, says, "I’m not surprised that
people don’t recognise the signs of drug misuse. A lot of our managers are a
completely different generation from our employees and wouldn’t be able to
recognise the signs."

Poor
performance is not always obvious, says John Manson, head of group HR of metals
giant AMC. He says, "Alcoholism is easier to spot than drug abuse. With
alcoholics, you can look for a Monday/Friday pattern of absence and there can
be some obvious behavioural problems when under the influence.

"Colleagues
will also be more aware of someone with a drink problem. But a main reason why
drug abuse is difficult to spot is that it can contradict the myth of
deteriorating performance. Some abusers can perform consistently well over long
periods."

With
the prospect of a law for corporate manslaughter on the statute books soon,
many employers want to test staff for drug and alcohol abuse. More than 30 per
cent of respondents are considering introducing testing for drugs and alcohol
in the next 12 months.

Currently,
10 per cent of organisations test employees for alcohol or drug use, and 9 per
cent have run tests in their recruitment process.

Employer
liability in the event of an accident is a clear concern. Laura Halliday, HR
executive of medical manufacturer Ethicon, which employs more than 2,000 staff,
says, "Employers are holding back because of the human rights debate over
drug and alcohol testing. They’re asking whether the performance of people who
have the odd joint outside work would be affected.

"We
are considering testing, not because we have a problem, but because there is
more legislation and we don’t want someone to be injured through substance
misuse."

There
is a much greater desire for random testing of staff from employers in
safety-sensitive sectors, such as manufacturing and transport.

Michele
Evans, personnel manager of Fisher Foods, says, "I’m surprised that more
companies don’t test for drugs and alcohol. We are thinking of introducing
testing next year as we work in a processing environment where staff are using
sharp knives, and it raises health and safety issues."

The
survey also shows that many HR professionals would like to restrict drinking
during work hours. Nearly three-quarters would like to forbid lunchtime
drinking.

Anne
Millard, deputy director of HR at Forth Valley Acute Hospital NHS Trust, says,
"In the public sector, people should not be allowed to consume alcohol in
working hours. That’s because we work closely with the public and it’s very
much against the trust policy. I can understand that in the private sector that
culture would be quite different."

Although
Ayshea Christian, HR manager of accountancy firm Lovewell Blake, does not
condone drinking, she accepts that it can be part of business.

She
says, "Staff are real people and able to take care of themselves. Because
of the nature of our business there are a lot of business lunches and the
building up of relationships with clients could be affected if there was a
ban."

She
adds, "If staff are drunk at work, it is a disciplinary offence, but we
would take each case one at a time and try to provide support for the member of
staff concerned."

Support
rather than disciplinary proceedings is the aim of most employers when they
identify staff with problems. The survey shows that 84 per cent of
organisations would support an employee and would get specialist help for their
alcohol or drug addiction.

Lynn
Ross, HR manager of chemical company Huntsman Tioxide, which recently
implemented a random testing scheme, says, "The position we have taken is
one of support and we view it as an illness.

"We
provide people with support and counselling and make up a plan for them. If
they fail to keep to this plan, it will become a disciplinary proceeding as a
last resort. Policies are effective as long as you stand by them."

Although
many employers want to help staff suffering from addiction, HR professionals
need to be better equipped to deal with it. The research reveals that only 19
per cent of HR professionals believe that they have the skills and knowledge to
raise the issue of alcohol and drug problems with staff.

Furthermore,
65 per cent of organisations do not have health advice and information about
the effects of alcohol and drugs readily available in the workplace.

Drug
and alcohol abuse is having a significant impact on the workplace. In an
increasingly litigious environment, employers are having to consider a rigorous
risk management approach to staff misuse of drugs and alcohol and, for many,
this includes the prospect of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace.

Alcohol
and drug workplace policies

Over
70 per cent of employers have written polices on drugs and alcohol in place but
only 25 per cent regularly communicate them to staff.

A
total of 59 per cent of HR professionals who responded to our survey reveal
that their companies have joint drug and alcohol policies.

The
overall number of employers which have polices on drugs and alcohol has
increased by nearly one-fifth over the past six years.

In
1995, 53 per cent of organisations had policies on drug and alcohol misuse,
according to our last research on the subject.

Terry
McCartney, personnel manager at textile manufacturer Joshua Ellis & Co,
says his company is about to introduce a written policy on drugs and alcohol in
the workplace because of increasing concern about the issue.

"We
have gone through a consultation process, and from 3 September we will outlaw
drinking during work hours. We have had a very positive response from the
majority of our people," he says.

"It
will offer advice and support to employees who come forward and say they have a
problem and help combat the misuse of alcohol and drugs."

McCartney
adds that the firm’s managers are to be given a talk by the local branch of the
drug and alcohol advice service Lifeline on how to identify the behaviour of
anyone who is under the influence of drugs.

Peter
Collyer, HR director at Oasis Stores, says his company does have written
policies on alcohol and drugs, but emphasises that this is mainly so that
employees know where they can turn to for help.

He
says, "Whether you like it or not, people have issues outside work which
could mean that they use drink or drugs, and we as an employer have a moral
responsibility to make sure that there is support available if it is needed.

"But
at the same time, staff have to recognise that we are running a business."

The
Drug and Alcohol Workplace Service offers advice, consultancy and training to
employers to help them tackle the effect of alcohol and drugs on the workplace.

The
service can help employers to develop and implement an effective and fair
alcohol and drug policy, establishing the organisation’s ground rules on
alcohol and drugs. It can help to set procedures for dealing with problems and
referring employees for help, giving staff the confidence and skills to make
effective interventions.

For
more details contact Derek Mason, workplace development officer
for Alcohol Concern and DrugScope on 020-7928 7377

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