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Coping with the cost of living | Managing employees’ drug and alcohol misuse

Written by Sarah Bunker and Andy Hall on 27 September 2022

From the pandemic to the cost of living crisis, the upheaval of the last two years has taken a toll on people’s mental health, and provided a perfect breeding ground for drug and alcohol abuse.

For many, recent factors such as prolonged isolation, significant work changes and political uncertainty have contributed to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression – now made worse by fears of a bleak winter ahead as energy costs spiral.

Some may turn to drugs and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism – a way of temporarily supressing negative emotions, escaping from life’s stressors, and boosting mood. However, what most don’t realise is that regular overuse or misuse of these substances can worsen existing issues and even create further problems, not least at work.

After all, consuming alcohol negatively impacts an individual’s ability to concentrate, problem-solve, and react to problems quickly. It can also impede their judgement, memory and decision-making skills. This will naturally concern employers, as it could increase the potential for mistakes to be made, as well as pose real health and safety risks.

Even in low-risk industries, working while under the influence may affect an employee’s attendance, performance, professionalism and relationships with colleagues, all of which have negative business consequences. Of course, there will also be concerns for the employee’s health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately for employers, the issue is intensifying. According to IOSH, the pandemic has increased the number of employees misusing drugs and alcohol; positive drug tests in the workplace have increased 54% since 2019, and 25% of employees admit that drugs and alcohol have affected their work.

On top of this, research points to a link between financial hardship and poor mental health, which may in turn prompt people to self-medicate. Given the fall in ‘real’ incomes that the UK has experienced since late 2021, and the stress and worry this is causing for many people, it’s likely that alcohol dependence may become a deeper problem.

Because of this, it’s essential that employers know what to do if they suspect that an employee may be struggling with substance misuse.

First, know what to look out for

Knowing the signs of drug and alcohol misuse will enable managers and team leaders to intervene early so that they can support employees and prevent workplace issues before they arise.

Indicators of drug and/or alcohol misuse at work include:

  • More frequent absences. Misusing alcohol and/or drugs, including prescription medication, can leave employees feeling hungover and unwell. Many substances can also make users feel too jittery to sleep. This can manifest as higher-than usual absenteeism spread across many months.
  • A drop in performance. It goes without saying that being under the influence at work can make it difficult to focus, affecting employees’ ability to carry out more complex tasks. A drop in work quality, a noticeable increase in mistakes, or missing deadlines and targets may be indicators that something is wrong.
  • Behavioural changes. Has the employee suddenly become more agitated, irritable or confrontational? Do they overreact to little things? Have they lost motivation? If the employee’s behaviour and reactions to situations are uncharacteristic and unjustified, it may be a red flag for alcohol or drug misuse.
  • Conduct issues. Behavioural changes may also lead to conduct issues, including chronic lateness, an argumentative or aggressive attitude with colleagues and customers, and taking longer breaks or slacking off.
  • Changes in appearance. Substance use disorders can impact sufferers’ physical wellbeing and appearance in significant ways, from skin changes to slurred speech and sudden weight loss or weight gain. Their personal hygiene or professional appearance may also be impacted.

Of course, these aren’t always indicators of substance misuse; the employee may also be struggling with family stress, illness or a work problem. It’s therefore important not to jump to conclusions – if an employee is exhibiting any of the behaviours outlined above, a sensitively handled conversation in private would be advisable to try to understand the reasons why and to work out how to manage this.

In any event, employers should ensure that they have a suitable policy on drugs and alcohol – discussed in more detail below.

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Make your stance clear through policies

All organisations can benefit from a written policy on alcohol and drug misuse. This will form part of your employee handbook, which should be made easily accessible to all staff.

Having a written drug and alcohol policy will leave less room for misunderstanding and will make it easier to take action should issues arise.

Your drug and alcohol policy should set out how you will deal with employees who you reasonably believe are under the influence, including the role of colleagues and the support those with a dependency will be offered. This will provide structure and a framework for both managers / team leaders and the employee concerned.

Within the policy, you may decide to:

  • Impose a strict ban on consuming alcohol prior to or during working hours or breaks; or
  • Take a more relaxed approach, allowing moderate drinking during lunch breaks or in specific circumstances such as entertaining clients, provided it doesn’t impact work performance. This of course relies on a greater degree of trust in employees’ ability to self-regulate.

What rules you impose is subject to your discretion and will largely depend on the nature of your organisation, but it’s important to make sure they are clear and reasonable.

In any case, your policy should state that being unfit for work due to alcohol or drug consumption will normally result in action being taken under the company’s disciplinary procedure. In more serious cases, being under the influence at work could be grounds for termination of employment, potentially on the grounds of gross misconduct.

For this reason, employers should ensure that any refusal to undergo testing is written into the disciplinary policy/procedure as behaviour which would normally be treated as gross misconduct.

Additionally, your health and safety policy should dedicate a section outlining your stance on drugs and alcohol, particularly if your activities pose foreseeable risks which would be worsened by drug or alcohol use such as driving or operating machinery. Your health and safety handbook should then make clear any prescribed limits; for example, do you have a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, or allow the road legal limit (35 micrograms in England and Wales and 22 micrograms in Scotland)?

Some companies even reserve the right in the employment contract to require an employee to undergo testing in cases where they have reason to suspect they may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

If the testing confirms that the employee was intoxicated, you may decide to take disciplinary action depending on, for example, the levels of intoxication and the substance(s) used.

Note that in order to rely confidently on the results of testing for disciplinary or Tribunal purposes, the testing should be undertaken by trained collection officers with calibrated breathalysing equipment and/or drug tests analysed by suitably accredited laboratories.

Communicate your policy and train managers

As with all workforce matters, having a policy isn’t enough; it needs to be communicated, understood and followed.

How will existing staff and any new recruits know be made aware of your rules? Does anyone need more information or training?

Supervisors and other managers need to be clear about company rules and what to do if they suspect employees’ drinking or drug-taking is affecting their work. They also need to be aware of the implications of not tackling possible alcohol and drug misuse, especially where safety is an issue.

This can be done by ensuring that all managers, supervisors and employees receive training on your policies, for example on induction and at regular intervals thereafter when policies are updated or as the need arises.

Address concerns carefully and compassionately

It’s important for managers to handle potential substance misuse or abuse at work tactfully. Openly accusing someone of using drugs or coming to work drunk or high can be feel like an attack and lead to heated confrontations, which will only make matters worse. It could also result in the employee resigning and making a successful constructive dismissal claim.

If you suspect that drugs or alcohol are influencing an employee’s actions, it’s a good idea to document the specific behaviours causing suspicion and worry. You can then present these observations to the employee in an objective, compassionate and non-accusatory manner with the aim of identifying ways to help.

Employees who regularly turn up to work drunk may do so because they have a dependency on alcohol. In these cases, you may be able to offer support through your Employee Assistance Programme and/or encourage the employee to seek help from their GP or a specialist alcohol agency.

Any absences due to attending treatment or counselling should be treated as sickness absence. However, if the employee doesn’t follow the recommended treatment pathway or continues to have issues with their performance, conduct or attendance, then disciplinary action, absence management or a performance management process may be warranted.

Note that dismissal should be a last resort. A Tribunal may find a dismissal unfair if an employer has made no attempt to help an employee whose work problems are related to drinking alcohol or misusing prescription drugs.

What’s more, reasonable employers would likely make a distinction between an employee coming forward and admitting to having a drug or alcohol problem and an employee who is found to be over any policy or legal limits when tested, or who causes an accident or incident as a result of their drinking or drug use.

The latter may be treated as a gross misconduct offence, while the former may be met with greater understanding and seen as an opportunity to have an honest conversation and explore support options.

Any policy should make this clear, i.e. if an employee confides in colleagues or their employer that they have a dependency, then the employer will endeavour to support them through interventions such as drug and alcohol services and reasonable adjustments to the working activity to manage risk appropriately.

Be alert to health and safety risks

Working under the influence of alcohol or drugs has obvious health and safety implications. It can lead to risk-taking behaviour, impulsive decisions and lapses in judgement, which can have severe consequences, not only for the intoxicated employee but for those around them.

Operating machinery while drunk, for example, is extremely dangerous as it can affect the operator’s concentration, coordination and reaction time.

Even in office environments, substance misuse can greatly increase the risk of slips, trips and falls and can also lead to violent and aggressive behaviour, putting others at risk.

If the employee drives as part of their duties, or uses machinery, electrical equipment or ladders as part of their role, employers should be extra vigilant when it comes to signs of substance misuse.

Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, Section 2, to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their work activities.

As such, if you knowingly allow an employee to work while intoxicated and this puts the employee or other colleagues and others at risk, you could face prosecution. 

This will come down to foreseeability; for example, an office employer is not likely to be legally responsible for the journey to and from work, unless the employee is driving a company car or defined as a mobile worker, but a logistics employer has a much bigger foreseeable risks and would therefore be expected to take more formal, proactive steps to manage them. In all cases however, where the risk is foreseeable, employers have a moral, legal and financial duty to ensure their employees don’t put themselves or others at risk of harm.

It’s therefore important to keep an eye out for signs that an employee is under the influence, including those outlined above. Take note also of sudden increases in workplace accidents and be sure to record them, as this may point to an alcohol or drug problem.

In safety-critical roles, you may wish to reserve the right to randomly test employees at regular intervals. If an employee fails the test, they would usually be suspended (on full pay) pending the results of the drug and alcohol testing being returned by an accredited lab. This could then lead to disciplinary action, which could result in dismissal.

Testing should be genuinely random or include everyone in that safety-critical role to avoid discrimination issues. Further, due cause testing could be introduced where there is accident, incident or suspicion of substance misuse. This could also extend to contractors; while employers will be unable to enforce this, refusing to take a test could be viewed as an admission of guilt, which may lead to the individual being expelled from the site.

Similarly, employees cannot be forced to undergo drug or alcohol testing. However, if they refuse and you have good grounds for testing under the health and safety policy or a specific drug and alcohol policy, they could face disciplinary action, which could include dismissal.

Final thoughts

Many workers are currently experiencing immense stress and, oftentimes, people believe substance use is a solution. 

While it’s not up to employers to police what employees choose to do outside of work – unless their actions could be regarded as bringing the business into disrepute – drugs and alcohol can have an effect on the workplace and everyone in it, and employers must be alert to these issues, especially right now.

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Professional support through your people issues

From day-to-day queries to more complex and sensitive cases, WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR experts are here to help you overcome any employment challenge confidently and compliantly. 

If you’re dealing with a difficult situation involving drugs and alcohol in the workplace, or just want to get on the front foot, we can help your business by:

  • Drafting or reviewing your drug and alcohol policy to ensure it’s clear about your expectations and the consequences should staff breach your rules
  • Providing training to HR or line management on the policy to help them apply it fairly and consistently
  • Offering pragmatic advice to help you handle substance misuse issues appropriately and minimise unfair dismissal risks

For support, get in touch on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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