A groundbreaking drugs and alcohol advice service has helped
London Underground tackle a culture of misuse, reduce sickness absence and
improve productivity. Alex Blyth reports
London Underground (LU) is a major business carrying some 3 million
passengers a day. It runs 511 trains on 253 miles of track and employs more
than 12,000. It has an HR team of 386.
When, in July 2003, the London Evening Standard claimed that a culture of
"drink and drug abuse" was prevalent among LU employees and
subcontractors, the company was able to point to its highly successful
programme for tackling alcohol abuse. While crashes, strikes, and
part-privatisation have kept LU in the headlines, few have noticed the work
done by LU manager Nigel Radcliffe and his team in building the groundbreaking
drug and alcohol advisory service.
LU set up the unit in 1993 in response to new legislation that would hold
organisations liable if they failed to show due diligence in ensuring that
those in control of public transport were not intoxicated. Random testing was
introduced and Radcliffe was hired to set up and manage the unit.
Radcliffe describes the culture of alcohol abuse. "The depots all had
bars. Shift workers would drink together before doing the night shift, and
management turned a blind eye."
The implications of this lack of action went beyond immediate concerns over
criminal prosecution. Alcohol Concern estimates that absenteeism and low
productivity as a direct result of alcohol abuse costs the UK £2bn a year, and
LU was certainly bearing heavy costs in this respect.
Radcliffe describes how the unit faced tough decisions from the outset.
"A core issue was how to deal with someone in a safety-critical job who
has just admitted to an alcohol problem. We have to stand the employee down
from their job, but we also have to honour our promise to protect their job.
For this reason, it is crucially important to hire top-quality assessment
staff, but many companies balk at the cost and effort required. There are a
handful of consultancies offering the service, but we decided to build the
expertise entirely in-house."
The unit helps about 100 employees each year, with about 60 per cent having
a serious problem. The first stage is a three-week assessment programme, at the
end of which a contract is signed. The contract details the requirements of the
company for that individual to return to their job. Fifty per cent require
residential treatment and most of this is done through a cost-sharing
arrangement with local authorities. Treatment frequently takes up to a year to
complete. The programme costs almost £500,000 a year, and has faced
considerable opposition from parts of the organisation. However, after 10
years, the results speak for themselves.
Eighty per cent of those who go through the programme return to work within
a year. Prior to treatment, those with an alcohol problem take an average of 30
days’ sick leave, while after treatment this falls to just seven days. When you
consider the numbers involved, LU is recouping a fair amount of its investment
purely in terms of attendance.
Minimising the risk of prosecution, improved productivity and employee
motivation are also significant benefits for LU, but Radcliffe has been most
surprised by the shift in attitudes. "Early on there was massive
resistance from unions and management to interference with drinking. Now,
drinking at work is perceived to be just as socially unacceptable as drink
The employee perspective
John has worked for LU since 1983. He describes the drink culture of the
early days. "You weren’t one of the gang if you didn’t drink. I remember
many instances of people not getting overtime because they hadn’t been in the
pub before the night shift."
He was a heavy drinker in, around and outside of work. When LU introduced
random testing, he began to take time off. This continued until the year 2000,
when he was close to being sacked for persistent absence and so approached the
"I spent six weeks denying my problem before I agreed to go into
residential treatment. I was there from November to March, during which time
the company continued to pay me. After about 100 days back at work I relapsed,
but went straight back to the unit, where we agreed that I needed to start
attending AA meetings. By September, I was able to get back to work again and
since then everything has gone well," he says.
John is now a track access controller, earning about £40,000 a year and
doing an important, demanding job for LU. He has no hesitation in praising the
"If the unit had not been there, I would probably be dead by now. I
know how much the company has invested in me. I just hope that I have been able
to repay that investment."
Learning points for HR
Radcliffe has four pieces of advice for anyone wanting to set up a similar
– Before you start, be very clear about the relationship between advisory
and disciplinary processes
– Ensure the people you hire are good enough to deal with the extremely
difficult jobs you will ask of them
– Educate management to ensure buy-in
– Be aware of the scale of what you are getting into.