Drug and alcohol policies: A matter of substance

We discover why every company needs to develop a drug and alcohol policy for staff.

Images of packed and sweaty City wine bars were among the first obvious signs that the recession is more than a figment of the media’s imagination. They also served as a reminder that we live and work in a culture where it’s considered natural to turn to the bottle – and, increasingly, pills – in both good times and bad. But should we be reassessing the UK’s casual drinking culture?

The Home Office estimates the social and economic cost of drug abuse to the UK economy in terms of crime, absenteeism and sickness is in excess of £20bn a year, while the prime minister’s Strategy Unit has calculated that the damage done by problematic alcohol consumption is costing £6.4bn a year in England alone.

Drug and alcohol use is a subject that few employers are comfortable acknowledging, let alone tackling. It is still stigmatised, mainly due to people’s inability to understand it, and in particular their failure to accept it as an illness.


It seems to be a case of ignoring something in the hope that it will go away, says Marco Martinez, marketing director at drugs and alcohol treatment centre Winthrop Hall.

“I’ve lost count of the number of HR directors at blue chip organisations who have said to me ‘We don’t have drink or drug problems here’. A look at any set of statistics will tell you that if you have more than 10 people at your company, somebody will have a problem with alcohol or drugs. The problem is hidden, so people don’t recognise it instantly,” he says.

To convince employers to confront staff problems with drugs and alcohol, Martinez says, HR directors need “to link alcohol and drugs to performance and productivity”.

“Once a finance director understands the impact on the company’s bottom line along with the repercussions of potential litigation, confronting drug and alcohol misuse is a no-brainer,” he adds.

When someone mentions drug or alcohol abuse at work, we tend to think of people with serious addiction issues, with obvious behavioural problems and a marked inability to perform. But the issue is often much less clear cut.

The NHS’s National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse (NTA) defines misuse as “illegal or illicit drug taking or alcohol consumption which leads a person to experience social, psychological, physical or legal problems”. This can mean something as seemingly trivial as being hungover at work or late in because of a night of drinking.


A workplace alcohol study by Liverpool-based charity Health@Work and the city’s John Moores University last year revealed that almost a third (31%) of companies were suffering the effects of staff alcohol consumption outside of working hours. When employees at 302 local companies were questioned, a fifth (19%) of them reported arriving in work with a hangover at least once in the previous two weeks and 15% reported being late in the last year due to alcohol. So it’s not just the ‘addicts’ who are affecting the bottom line.

Health@Work advised that employers needed to “raise awareness that alcohol-related issues are wider than dependency issues, and that occasional excessive drinking can negatively affect the workplace as well”.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2007 survey on managing drug and alcohol misuse at work found that around 60% of employers had already implemented a drug and alcohol policy and had rules regarding the consumption of alcohol during working hours. Yet it also found that only 33% of employers trained managers in how to manage misuse of drug and alcohol at work and just 22% trained employees generally in organisational procedures in tackling these issues.

Keith Gorman, programme manager at Health@Work, says that recognising the problem (see below) is the first step for an employer (most likely a member of the HR team), followed by speaking sensitively to the person involved.

In the bad old days, this would often have meant dispensing with their services, but today it should be with a view to supporting them – discussing the possible reasons for their substance abuse, recommending support groups, and setting up a ‘support pathway’.

According to the NTA, an effective policy should, above all, “be a clear statement”, which emphasises “that an alcohol or drug problem should be seen as a health problem, unless an individual’s work is affected”.


Once someone’s work begins to suffer, the NTA advises, their substance abuse becomes a disciplinary problem, although the employer is still obliged to offer them as much support as possible – including a back-to-work programme if they have to take time off for treatment.

Dr David Bremner, Winthrop Hall’s medical director, says: “Research has shown that organisations don’t look for a problem when they don’t have a solution” – in other words, employers don’t approach drinkers or drugs users if they don’t have a policy in place.

Aware of the sensitivities, cost and logistic difficulties of having treatment, Winthrop Hall is pioneering a new approach – ‘e-therapy’ – where people with substance abuse problems will be able to follow a treatment programme online, alongside existing employee assistance programmes.

The rehabilitation centre hopes this will help people with childcare or other personal commitments, and those whose employer cannot afford a standard programme (few private healthcare policies cover addiction).


Drug and alcohol testing is another sticky aspect of what is already a sensitive area, with employers legally obliged to justify testing any employee who isn’t showing obvious signs of drug or alcohol misuse. But testing is becoming increasingly popular, according to Dan Taylor, group head of marketing at drug and alcohol testing provider Concateno Group.

While, legally, employers cannot force staff to be tested, the pre-employment test is becoming increasingly common. One key development, Taylor says, is that “the distinction between safety-critical and business-critical is blurring”.

In other words, while companies have long tested the likes of pilots and drivers, they are now increasingly testing those who may make poor business decisions while under the influence of either drugs or alcohol – or both.

Certain industries and functions have long been associated with abuse – journalists with drink, the entertainment sector with drugs, the catering industry with both – but levels of usage can vary even within organisations. Taylor mentions a Concateno client whose overall drugs and alcohol positivity rate was 4.8%, while that at their call centres was much higher at 11.2%.

Several of the higher risk sectors are already subject to regular testing, but generally at the behest of their own regulatory bodies rather than their employers, for instance the British Medical Association (BMA), which closely monitors its doctors.

As the recession takes hold, employers throughout the country must be wondering whether staff will turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to block out their worries, but regardless of the economic climate, every company needs to develop and implement a drug and alcohol policy – the implications of failing to do so are just too far reaching to ignore.

Top 10 signs that may indicate alcohol and/or drug problems

  1. Sweats and shakes
  2. Repeating of sentences/ideas and/or memory recall problems
  3. Repeated absences from work (usually with gastric/tummy trouble) especially on Mondays or Fridays, to extend the weekend
  4. Longer than usual breaks at lunchtime or coffee time, or repeated trips to the bathroom (to drink or take drugs)
  5. Unusual reasons given for absences from work
  6. Signs of repeated physical damage, such as cuts, grazes or falls, at or outside work
  7. The smell of alcohol on the breath
  8. Erratic behavioural changes, such as displays of anger in e-mails or within the office environment
  9. Overall declining levels of performance and commitment at work
  10. Repeated bouts of dishonesty.

Source: Winthrop Hall (Note: some of these occur naturally in people without drink or drug problems.)

How work issues can contribute to drug and alcohol problems

  • Stress caused by high workloads
  • Dealing with difficult situations, such as child protection issues
  • Pressures of dealing with a difficult client group
  • A workplace culture that encourages the use of alcohol at lunchtime or after work

Source: The National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse 

The legal implications of drug and alcohol use

Acts you could fall foul of:

  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • Transport and Works Act 1992 
  • Railway and Transport Safety Act 2003
  • Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007
  • Human Rights Act 1998

Comments are closed.