HR has crucial role in tackling drugs at work

Drugs Minister Bob Ainsworth, who is speaking at the 4th Annual Combating
Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace Seminar today, talks exclusively to
Personnel Today on the crucial role HR can play in tackling the problem.

Q Personnel Today’s survey on drugs and alcohol in the workplace last
August showed that nearly a third of employers had suffered absenteeism and
poor performance due to drug abuse. How big a challenge is tackling drug abuse
in the workplace?

A The challenge is made more difficult by the hidden nature of the
problem. Very often employers see alcohol as the bigger problem, because they
do not see the full extent of the drugs problem due to the illegal nature of
drugs keeping them hidden.

The figures speak for themselves. They make it clear that drugs
substantially affect performance, sickness and absenteeism, as well as posing
legal risks in terms of crime. Much of the challenge lies in recognising the
scale of the problem.

Q Nearly a third of employers are considering testing staff for drug and
alcohol abuse this year. What does the minister advocate as best practice for
employers in identifying drug abuse among staff?

A We are looking to commission comprehensive guidance, covering
management of drugs in the workplace, which will include the role of testing.
In preparing this guide we will consult widely.

I don’t want to pre-judge the consultation response, but current good
practice is that testing is not a panacea or a universal solution. It is
appropriate in a safety-critical environment, but less important in others. At
present, testing does not enable us to judge impairment, only that a drug has
been used.

Some employers will feel that simply identifying drug use three weeks
previously is sufficient reason not to offer a job, or to sack a person. That
decision may feel right, but an industrial tribunal would probably feel it
needs to be set in the context of the employee’s performance and potential and
the drug taken.

Q Our research shows that 84 per cent of HR professionals would support
an employee getting specialist help for a drug problem. How should employers
respond when they identify staff with drug problems?

A Identification in itself takes particular skills and expertise and
we hope that HR staff will take the opportunities available through the DAT
(Drug Action Team) to acquire these skills.

When they do identify people with drug problems they need to start by
assessing the motivation and attitude of that employee to their drug use. Do
they acknowledge that their use is a problem, and do they want help? If so,
they can be referred for treatment.

If not, the HR officer is the person to encourage them to get help and build
their motivation, if necessary by making clear the risk the employee runs from
disciplinary action if their use continues in a problematic way.

HR staff are a crucial link to treatment and part of the chain of caring
professionals who will help an individual drug user overcome their problem.
They can make all the difference. It is not just a matter of making an
appointment, the HR officer is there to help the user examine why they need
help, dispel fears and misconceptions about treatment, and instil motivation to
change. These are all ‘treatment’ skills, in the broader sense.

Q Only 19 per cent of HR professionals believe they have the skills and
knowledge to raise the issue of alcohol and drug problems with staff. How can
this be improved?

A They need training. Employers need to be prepared to release staff
or pay for training. Free training should be available from DAT or its agencies
– we are currently ensuring they all work to the same standards and are
providing extra resources for them.

Q The research shows only 49 per cent of HR professionals know which
local specialist agencies to go to for advice and support when dealing with
alcohol or drug problems. What is the Government doing to improve employers’
understanding of drug abuse and the services that are available to them?

A There are many excellent resources and committed people – drug
agencies, consultants, DATs – looking to sell their services to industry.

Our aim is to support this. We have commissioned a consortia of drug
specialists to develop resources and training for Drug Action Teams to help
them carry out this work and ensure they are at least working to one standard.

We are also working on guidance that will set a standard for how the issue
should be managed by companies. Combined with training and other resources,
this should enable them to respond positively to incidents and individuals at

Once in place, we will explore the possibilities of a voluntary kitemarking
scheme for companies that meet the standard in their workplace. This will be an
incentive to business to improve their performance in this area.

Q How should HR professionals involve staff and trade unions in reducing
drug abuse in the workplace?

A It is essential that trade unions are fully involved right from the
start. Workplace policies directly impact on the rights and freedoms of staff.
For example, a policy not to allow drinking at lunchtimes is something that has
to be discussed with unions. Likewise, random drug testing is a major concern
for unions.

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