What are the signs of drug or alcohol abuse by staff in the workplace? HR
managers and clinicians talk to Phil Boucher about how they have tackled
With drug abuse now accounting for 13 per cent of workplace accidents and 64
per cent of cases of deteriorating job performance, according to a study by the
Health and Safety Executive, many HR professionals are asking the question,
"I know there are people in the company taking drugs but how do I deal
with it?" The whole area of drug abuse at work is shrouded in myth and
misconception, often making it hard for HR managers to deal with the situation.
Contrary to popular opinion, drug-taking is not confined to the high-flying,
adrenaline-addicted echelon of the workforce. As Dr Neil Brener, consultant
psychiatrist and medical doctor of the Priory Hospital in London, explains,
"People from all walks of society use cocaine at work. It includes
everyone from secretaries to post boys and executives – the whole crowd.
"There are three main types of drug users in the workplace: those who
see it as a method of support and are unable to cope with the stress, pressure
and workload of their jobs; those who use it on a social basis and it then gets
out of control; and people who have turned to drugs as a consequence of
emotional problems unconnected with the workplace, such as bereavement."
Although there is the option of screening and organisations such as airlines
are considering introducing compulsory drink and drugs testing for staff, the
preferred route is to treat the problem of drug abuse as a health issue. Yet
research by Alcohol Concern and Drugscope has found that 43 per cent of
organisations do not have a workplace alcohol and drugs policy, and 84 per cent
do not run awareness programmes for managers. The CIPD, which has charted a
significant rise in the number of companies experiencing workers with drug
problems, agrees that prevention is better than cure and asserts that employers
cannot afford to be complacent about drugs in the workplace.
"The best way of dealing with an alcohol or drugs problem is to run
awareness-raising education programmes as you would for any other kind of
social problem, says Diane Sinclair, employee relations adviser at the CIPD.
"Someone with a drugs or alcohol problem should be treated in the same
way as someone with an illness. And the best solution is to help them –
counselling, other types of treatment and rehab. Dismissal should really be the
With this in mind, here’s a guide to spotting the signs of substance abuse,
identifying the professions that are particularly vulnerable, looking at what
companies have done to tackle the problem and where to go for help.
Chemical names: ethanol or ethyl alcohol
What it does: With 93 per cent of people in the UK consuming alcohol,
it is not commonly perceived to be a drug. But research by Alcohol Concern
indicates drinking costs industry more than £2bn a year and accounts for 25 per
cent of all workplace accidents.
Preferred profession: Publicans and bar workers, doctors, sailors,
railway workers, lawyers and those in literary or artistic occupations and the
Tackling the problem: In the late 1980s, British Rail realised it had
a drinking culture and took steps to address it, according to Kevin Groves, HR
spokesman for Railtrack. Pre-employment screening was introduced in 1989 and
random testing was introduced in 1993. "Generally there is no problem as
long as people are up front with us," he says.
"We constantly stress that if you have a problem and are in a
safety-critical role such as signalling, you need to tell us for your own sake
and that of the passengers. Anyone in a safety-critical role is immediately
moved and disciplined if they are found to be under the influence of any
substance. We then provide support and counselling if there is a problem."
Where to go for help: Alcohol Concern (020-8200 9525) and Alcoholics
Anonymous (01904 644026) offer advice and links to counselling services
nationally. Perseverance is required as alcoholism is recognised as possibly
the most difficult addiction to treat of all.
Chemical name: nicotine
What it does: The Royal College of Physicians says, "Nicotine is
as addictive as drugs such as heroin and cocaine". And a joint study by
the World Health Organisation and TUC concludes that smokers are more likely to
have days off work through ill-health, are less productive and pose a fire
hazard in the workplace.
Preferred profession: Research by anti-smoking group ASH suggests
that men and women in the unskilled manual group are most likely to be addicted
(45 per cent and 33 per cent). Research also found that men in the 15- to
64-year-old age group in social class 5 (unskilled, manual group), are three
times as likely to die of lung cancer as men in social class 1. Women in social
class 5 are almost twice as likely to die of lung cancer as women in social
Tackling the problem: Su Beacham, director of personnel and training
with JD Wetherspoons, says, "Thanks to the implementation of structured
non-smoking areas in our pubs our staff have minimal exposure to smoking and
the vast majority prefer it. If staff want to stop smoking we point them in the
direction of suitable courses so they can get as much information as possible.
Robin Hayley, an addiction councillor with Allen Carr, says, "Most
smokers want to stop smoking and are looking for help to achieve it. Involving
people who know what they are doing is crucial but you have to take the
position that you are helping people achieve their desire, not forcing them to
do something they don’t want to do."
Where to go for help: Most organisations already have stringent
no-smoking policies but to help employees wishing to quit, contact ASH
(020-7739 5902) or Allen Carr (020-8944 7761).
AKA: speed, ecstasy
Chemical names: amphetamine, metamphetamine, MDMA
What it does: Induces feelings of exhilaration power, strength,
energy, self-assertion and focus. Typically, they come in tablet or powdered form
and will drastically reduce feelings of tiredness and hunger.
Signs of use: Immediate effects include talkativeness, compulsive
behaviour, heightened self-consciousness and increased suspicion of people and
objects. The clearest physical indicators are dilated pupils, paleness, loss of
coordination and a lack of spatial awareness.
Preferred profession: Includes fishermen, lorry drivers, factory
workers, the catering industry and members of the medical profession, according
to Simon Dowson, a spokesman for Narcotics Anonymous. "Amphetamines are
used in almost every industry you can think of, although it is most likely
where shift work or unsociable hours are the norm," he says.
Tackling the problem: It’s important to have a policy based on
factual information and which deals with each case individually. Rachel Lohan,
communications manager for the public information service on drugs, Drugscope,
says, "It is crucial to get the involvement of all parties concerned for
this to be successful. Consult management and staff together so that it is not
an imposed policy, and take advice from staff who know about the situation and
from outside organisations who know the best way forward."
Amphetamine withdrawal can lead to depression months down the line so it is generally
an ongoing process.
Where to go for help: Narcotics Anonymous (020-7730 0009) and
Drugscope (020-7928 1211) are national organisations concerned with addiction
AKA: coke, charlie
Chemical name: cocaine hydrochloride
What it does: Psychologically, taking cocaine produces short, intense
sensations of alertness and excitability plus an exaggerated feeling of
competence and power.
Signs of use: Poor judgement, irritability and erratic, aggressive
behaviour are common. Impaired dexterity and the ability to estimate time and
distance can also become altered immediately after use. The clearest physical
indicators are dilated pupils, a twitchy nose, flushed appearance and overly
sociable behaviour. Regular users are more likely to be absent from work.
Preferred profession: Although it was exclusive to high-living
executive-level professions, a gramme of cocaine can be bought for £10, making
it accessible to almost everyone at work.
Tackling the problem: John Hughes, manager of HR policy at the BBC,
says, "First you have to make a distinction between alcohol and drugs. We
have an agreement with the union on alcohol dependency that works quite well
and we tend to follow the same policy on drugs."We see it as a medical rather
than a disciplinary problem," he continues. "If people refuse
treatment or do not continue with a course then they are liable to disciplinary
action. But if someone is using drugs (such as when Blue Peter presenter
Richard Bacon – he had to appear on Blue Peter and apologise for his
drug-taking) and they are in a position that reflects badly on the BBC or a
programme, you have to act speedily."
Where to go for help: Cocaine Anonymous (020-7284 1123) and Priory
Healthcare (www.prioryhealthcare.co.uk) can both put you in contact with local
counselling groups. The individual’s GP should always be consulted before any
steps are taken.
AKA: smack, junk, skag
Chemical names: include
opium, heroin and morphine.
What it does: Opiates sedate the central nervous system and cause the
brain, lungs and heart to relax. Typically, an opiate "high" involves
a sense of euphoria coupled with reduced nervous tension and anxiety. Users may
also display indifference to pain and appear to be both physically and mentally
Signs of use: While intravenous users can develop ulcerated veins and
needle marks, most opiates are smoked or swallowed. Drooping eyelids, poor
motor coordination, limited concentration and reduced visual activity are
common signs of use.
Preferred profession: None. Claire Maxwell, unit manager at heroin
councillor Detox 5, says it treats people from all social classes. "Some
are manual workers, others run their own businesses and there are even a few
high-fliers from the City."
Tackling the problem: Support and an understanding of the problem are
critical. Opiate use in the workplace most often develops when people need help
coping with long hours, competition and stress – the medical profession is
particularly at risk, with 1 in 15 doctors likely to have some kind of
addiction. Metian Enver, HR officer for the Association of Anaesthetists, says,
"It is vital that staff know who to approach, that their discussions will
be in confidence and that their role is supportive, not punitive."
Opiate withdrawal is arduous so be prepared for treatment to take months
rather than days.
Where to go for help: Contact the National Drugs Helpline on 0800
776600 or an experienced and sympathetic GP.