There is no denying that the workplace environment can be a very stressful one. Because of this, there are some people who turn to substances like drugs and alcohol in order to help them through the working day.

Of course, there are also individuals who may have turned to drugs or alcohol for other reasons and this is now spiralling out of control and impacting their work-life. After all, a large chunk of substance abuse can be linked to mental health problems.

There are a number of different studies and statistics that show that drug abuse is a big problem for businesses all across the United Kingdom.

According to Alcohol Concern, there are between 11 and 17 million working days lost because of excessive alcohol drinking each year. It is predicted that this is costing the UK economy £1.8 billion per annum.

Moreover, official statistics also show that employed individuals are more likely to drink excessive amounts when compared with people that are unemployed.

In terms of drug use in the United Kingdom, the latest statistics show that there is an evident problem.

There has been a significant increase in the number of people that are being treated for crack cocaine problems. According to a publication on the UK government website, there has been an increase of 18% in the number of individuals entering into treatment for crack cocaine, this is even more worrying when you consider that this follows a 23% increase when compared to the preceding year.

If these statistics were not compelling enough to convince you that drug and alcohol abuse are big issues for employers today, then you may be interested to hear that a survey that was conducted by Alcohol Concern and DrugScope which found that 27 per cent of employers stated that the misuse of drugs is an issue at their business. Not only this, but 60% of those employers interviewed also stated that they have experienced issues concerning staff drinking alcohol.

Furthermore, it is predicted that there are currently 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom that are addicted to over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Defining alcohol and drug misuse

Before we start taking a look at how alcohol and drug misuse can have an impact on your business and what you can do about it, it is first important to define what misuse is and just how harmful it can be.

Alcohol misuse

This refers to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol i.e. over the lower-risk limits of alcohol consumption. Units are used to measure the consumption of alcohol. 10ml of pure alcohol equates to a unit of alcohol. This is about a single small short measure (25ml) of spirits or half a pint of lower to normal-strength cider, beer, or lager.

According to the NHS, you should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Moreover, if you drink as much as 14 units, you are recommended to spread this evenly over at least three days.

If you fail to do this, there are a number of risks. This includes the following short-term risks:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Loss of personal possessions
  • Violent behaviour and/or being the victim of violence
  • Accidents and injuries that can result in hospital treatment being needed

In the long-term, if you have an employee whose alcohol misuse is spiralling out of control, some of the health conditions they could end up experiencing are as follows:

  • Pancreatitis
  • Breast cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease

Drug misuse

Drug misuse happens when an individual becomes dependent on a drug, and they feel like they need it in order to function. It becomes a central part of their life. This addiction can lead to both psychological and physical dependency.

Examples of drugs that are commonly misused include illegal drugs, as well as glues, solvents, gases, and aerosols, as well as prescribed medications e.g. cold remedies, sleeping tablets and painkillers.

Illegal drugs are categorised into one of the following three classes: A, B, and C.

  • Class A drugs are considered the most dangerous to a person’s health. They include the likes of magic mushrooms, amphetamine, opium, morphine, methadone, LSD, heroin, and cocaine.
  • Class B drugs are not as dangerous as class A drugs, but they are still considered very dangerous. Some examples include barbiturates, Ritalin, and codeine.
  • Finally, class C drugs are considered the least harmful to a person’s health, yet they are still illegal, and it is still possible for someone to get addicted and for it to take over their life. Examples include benzodiazepines, like valium, as well as GHB, ketamine, anabolic steroids, methaqualone, and cannabis.

There are many different risks that are associated with drug misuse. Of course, the risks are specific to the drug that is being abused. For example, short-term effects associated with cannabis include loss of coordination, feeling hungry, paranoia, dry tongue, lips, and mouth, as well as sickness and dizziness. Long-term effects include infertility, high blood pressure, respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis, lung cancer, and lung disease.

As highlighted earlier, cocaine is a drug that is increasingly being used in the UK. This is an incredibly addictive drug, which increases body temperature, causes the heart to beat irregularly, and raises blood pressure. Some of the effects of long-term cocaine use include impotence in men, extreme weight loss and malnutrition, insomnia, depression, and extreme paranoia.

Of course, substance abuse does not only impact a person’s body and mind, but it can also have a negative impact on their relationships as well. It can cause them to lose friendships and often people will end up stealing or committing other crimes in order to get the substance that they have become addicted to.

A drug addiction can be a vicious cycle. People chase the high they experienced when they first had the drug; they may want to feel happy or to forget about a traumatic time. However, their body develops a tolerance and so they find that they need more and more of the drug in order to feel anything close to the same effect.

What impact can substance abuse have on your business?

As you can see, a drug addiction can have a hugely negative impact on a person’s health. However, it can also cost the business they are working for too.

Here are some statistics regarding the impact that drug and drink problems can have on the economy:

  • A report conducted by Cardiff University for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) about illegal drug use in our workforces around the UK revealed that 13 per cent of those interviewed admitted to using illicit drugs within the previous year.
  • It is estimated that around 167,000 working days were lost in England due to alcohol, accounting for 16 per cent of all days off. (Public Health England)
  • Moreover, in a poll conducted by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), it was revealed that 34 per cent said that drugs were a significant cause of lost productivity and absenteeism. For alcohol, 41 per cent said that this was the case.

Clearly, drug addiction with the workplace can cause productivity levels to fall considerably because people will take time off work and employee impairment means they won’t be as effective when they are in. Moreover, substance abuse can cause hostility between workers and the rest of your employees may feel uncomfortable or unhappy at work. You could also suffer reputational damage if you don’t handle the situation properly.

What responsibilities do you have towards your employees when it comes to substance abuse?

Most employers would agree that they feel like they have a moral responsibility to assist any employee that is experiencing substance abuse. However, you also have a legal responsibility too. There are a number of different laws that are in place that address an employer’s duty in this regard. Some of the pieces of legislation you need to be aware of are as follows:

  • Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971 – This act makes it an offence for an individual to knowingly allow the production, supply, or use of controlled drugs on their premises, aside from in specific circumstances, for example, if a doctor is prescribing a drug.
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999 – This piece of law places a responsibility on the employer to ensure that all health and safety risks in the workplace are assessed. Therefore, if you have enabled a worker to keep working for you under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you could be prosecuted.
  • Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974 – When it comes to this piece of legislation, it is section 2 that you especially need to be concerned with. This places a responsibility on employers to make certain that, as far as is reasonably practicable, they ensure the welfare, safety, and health of their employees.

Although not applicable in all working environments, there are two other pieces of legislation that could relate to you in terms of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace. These are as follows:

  • Transport and Works Act, 1992 – As per this law, it is a criminal offence for specific types of workers to be unfit through drink and/or drugs while working on guided transport systems, for example, tramways and railways.
  • Road Traffic Act, 1988 – As per this law, any individual who is unfit to drive because of drug or alcohol use and has attempted to drive a vehicle or has indeed driven one, will be guilty of an offence.

Signs that you should look out for when you suspect an employee of substance abuse

It is also a good idea to educate yourself on the signs that a person could be misusing alcohol or drugs. These are as follows:

  • Isolating behaviours
  • Developing unhealthy relationships
  • Neglecting their workplace responsibilities
  • Financial problems (may ask for wages early)
  • Engaging in increasingly risky behaviours
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of concern for personal hygiene
  • Changes in the person’s daily routines
  • Slurred speech, tremors, or shakes
  • Frequent bloody noses
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in their behaviour and personality, like agitation, irritability, and motivation

Why immediate confrontation is not always the answer

While it can be tempting to confront someone when you feel like they have a drug or alcohol problem, immediate confrontation is not always the answer. When you confront someone, it can be easy for them to go into defence mode. They may feel like they are going to lose their job, and so they will immediately deny that they have a substance abuse problem. Instead, if you ensure that all employees are aware of your stance on drugs and alcohol and that there is help available to them without them automatically losing their job, you create an environment whereby your workers feel safer and they will, therefore, be more likely to tell you about the problems they are experiencing and reach out for help.

Putting a comprehensive policy on substance abuse in the workplace

When it comes to tackling the problem of substance abuse in the workplace, it is imperative to have a policy in place. This is imperative to ensure that you meet your legal duty of care to protect not only your employees but members of the public too.

Of course, it is not just about compliance, though. By having an effective policy in place, you can reduce the chances of other workplace injuries and accidents happening because of substance misuse. You will also be able to reduce levels of absenteeism.

Plus, if you take a supportive and positive approach to substance abuse, you can really benefit your employees too. They will be more likely to seek help, and this also benefits the rest of the people working for you.

So, how do you draw up an employee substance misuse policy? Here is what a good policy should do:

  • Firstly, you need to make sure that your policy explains the purpose of it. Why have you put together this document? Who does it apply to? You also need to outline any expectations when it comes to reporting for work fit. You also need to explain your stance on drinking alcohol before work and while on duty, for example, if you are attending a corporate event or entertaining a client. Establishing your stance on alcohol use is imperative so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Your policy should then seek to encourage workers and provide them with support when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse issues. You should outline clearly where they can go for help. You may want to include resources such as counselling contact details.
  • It is also imperative to acknowledge that there could be an underlying personal reason that has caused this substance use problem to manifest. Not everyone takes drugs simply because they want to. Your employee could be suffering from problems at home, for example, a relationship breakdown, financial difficulties, or the loss of a loved one. Moreover, drug abuse could be the manifestation of an underlying mental health condition, for example, the person may have turned to drugs as a coping mechanism to try and help them get over depression or anxiety they are experiencing. You should acknowledge this, and you should also outline the psychological support that is available from qualified psychologists and counsellors.
  • You also need to be clear about the steps that you are going to take if you have uncovered that an employee has breached the steps that have been presented within the policy. You need to be clear regarding what would be classed as misconduct so that there is not any confusion.
  • You should then explain what your employees’ responsibilities and duties will be both during and after they have had treatment. Providing steps to take if an employee has a relapse is also important. You should also make sure that all workers are aware that if they are entering into treatment and they have a substance misuse problem, this is not going to impact their job. It will not prejudice their chances of promotion or their job security, so long as they demonstrate they are on the path to a complete recovery and they remain compliant with therapy.
  • Aside from this, it is also important to outline what steps employees should take if they fear that someone else in the workplace is misusing drugs or alcohol. For example, you may state that the employee should report this to the company’s HR department or their manager. It is critical to outline this because early identification can give all employers the chance to intervene and ensure that the employee in question gets the help that she or he needs.

Some employers may decide to implement drug or alcohol screening as part of their policy. If you do this, you need to ensure that it is done fairly and lawfully. Screening is a method for testing whether workers have drugs, alcohol, or any other substance in their body. Typically, this will involve providing a urine sample.

Of course, in some industries, it may be essential for workers to be randomly or automatically tested for drug or alcohol abuse due to the nature of their work.

No matter what applies, screening is a very sensitive matter. You should only carry out screening if you have a valid reason for doing so. Moreover, you need to get permission from all employees.

Some of the things that you must do when it comes to screening are as follows:

  • Make sure that all employees are made aware of any potential disciplinary action if they refuse to take a test
  • A search for drugs must be carried out by someone of the same sex with a witness present
  • Make sure no one is singled out during random testing

Looking after your employees’ mental wellbeing

As mentioned earlier, mental health and substance abuse can often go hand-in-hand. According to Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Not only this but one in six people in England report experiencing a common mental health issue, for example, depression and anxiety, within any given week. As an employer, it is your duty to reduce mental health risk factors in the workplace. There are several different ways that you can do this. This includes the following:

  • Providing the correct resources that your workers need to perform their roles, whether this is time, personnel, digital, or physical resources
  • Give clear clarification of role objectives and expectations
  • Provide flexible working practices
  • Empower employees to make decisions around their work and exercise autonomy and control, wherever possible
  • Ensure there is clear and continual communication and management throughout the entire business
  • Enable employees to access HR support to raise grievances or concerns so that they can obtain guidance or ask for help
  • Have a clear health and safety policy in place

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other ways that you can look after your employees’ mental wellbeing. You should also ensure that employees are made aware of the many services that are available to assist if they are experiencing mental health problems of any nature.

To conclude, there is no denying that substance abuse is something that all employers need to be concerned with. Of course, there is no one way to handle the situation when you fear that employee wellbeing is at risk. It all depends on the unique circumstances of the situation. However, by having a flexible policy to draw upon, you will be able to deal with this situation as effectively as possible. It is important to remember that a lot of individuals suffering from substance abuse have some form of a mental health problem or something else is going on in their life. If employers do not act in their employee’s best interests, the consequences could be devastating – both for your business and for the individual suffering with the addiction.

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