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November 17, 2021

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Drug And Alcohol addiction

A guide to helping employees with addiction

Addiction in any form whether substance or behaviour related is often shrouded in secrecy and the person suffering from addiction may feel stigmatised, this is true within the workforce as in any area of life. This often leads to denial from both employees and employers about problems concerning alcohol and drug misuse within the workplace, as Rob Lloyd, Managing Director at Prevention Digital, explains.

talkingA staggering amount of adults have reported drinking more than the recommended alcohol units per week or using illicit drugs recreationally, BUT should employers be concerned about their staff’s consumption outside of work times?

Yes, employers have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of all their employees, and when one employee’s recreational drug or alcohol use begins to impact on their performance, attendance or the health and safety of their colleagues, an employer needs to assess the risks and implement any actions as laid out in the company Health & Safety Policy in line with Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Being able to identify the signs and symptoms of addiction will enable the implementation of your companies safety policy to mitigate the impact on other employees and your organisation whilst being able to offer support and assistance to the person suffering from addiction:

Drug and alcohol addiction signs and symptoms

The signs of addiction can mimic signs of stress or illness and shouldn’t be seen as a comprehensive list without adequate due diligence:

  • Frequent absences from work without explanation
  • Behavioural changes such as:
    • personal conduct issues
    • aggression
    • irritability
    • inappropriate behaviour
    • overconfidence
  • Repeated patterns of depression, or fatigue from sleeplessness, which last two to three days
  • Unexplained productivity dip and performance issues:
    • reduced response times
    • poor time-keeping
    • dishonesty and theft
  • Higher than normal accident rate or near misses occurring
  • Sudden mood changes from extreme happiness to severe depression
  • Tendency to become confused
  • Lack of discipline
  • Deterioration in relationships with colleagues, customers or management
  • Unusual financial irregularities.

There are points to consider when approaching the possibility of a drug or alcohol issue with an employee and each one may need a different approach:

  • Safety-critical work – in a case where the employee’s drug or alcohol misuse will put fellow employees, the public or the organisation at risk, an immediate assessment with appropriate safety measures will need to be implemented, these may include removal of the employee from the immediate area, contacting the police or medical personal if required
  • Alcohol – As one of the worlds most commonly used drugs, alcohol misuse is likely to present amongst an organisations workforce. Discerning whether the effects of alcohol are a by-product of excess whilst off duty or if there is a clear indication of drinking on duty will determine the actions required.
  • Illegal drugs – It’s in an employers’ interests to provide guidance and support for employees binging on drugs recreationally especially if it is to the point where it’s starting to have an impact on their health or performance
  • Prescription medicines – certain prescription medications, even when taken as prescribed can affect performance, cause fatigue or slowed reactions, and contain warnings about operating heavy machinery while taking them. These may include medications used to treat pain, depression or other psychological issues, an employee who feels secure that their health needs will be supported is more likely to disclose their medication use before it affects their work performance.
  • Solvents – the use of solvents to get high is sometimes called ‘glue sniffing’ and is more prevalent amongst young people, issues that need to be assessed is whether the incident in question was an accidental exposure or the use was deliberate. Either way, there needs to be an assessment of the storage and health and safety procedures in place if solvents are used, manufactured or stored on the premises.
  • An isolated or once-off incident or a pattern of incidents requires different approaches from key staff.
  • If a drug or alcohol dependency has been determined or brought to the relevant health and safety managers attention either by the employee or other interested parties, it is in the employers best interest to provide a safe and supportive environment within the parameters set out in the organisations’ policies
  • If the employee has a history of drug or alcohol problems, and relapse is suspected, they may require guidance and support as they seek assistance through support groups or treatment centres.

Ultimately no organisation wants to lose a good employee and if there are steps that can be taken to secure the employee’s position within the organisation whilst they seek and receive treatment, they should be taken before dismissal is considered.

How to approach employees about drug and alcohol addiction

Addiction in the workplace may involve legal, personal and confidentiality issues and whilst interconnected, providing support and taking disciplinary action needs to be balanced to achieve the best outcome for all involved, it is therefore good business practice to approach employees from a supportive standpoint unless there is clear evidence of inappropriate behaviour:

  • Drunkenness whilst on duty or whilst representing the organisation
  • Using, storing or dealing of controlled substances whilst on the company premises

Where immediate disciplinary action is required, such as contacting the police if the employee is contravening the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

The importance of compassion, to avoid denial

When confronted with evidence of drug or alcohol misuse, it can be difficult for people to admit that they have a problem, or that their misuse is out of control.  To help achieve a favourable scenario where the employee seeks appropriate treatment they will need to be assured that per company policy, their drug or alcohol problem will be treated as a health issue as much as is possible rather than as a cause for immediate dismissal.

Often the signs caused by the consumption of drugs or alcohol are behavioural or performance-based, and since there may be no clear evidence of the substance being present, standard performance procedures may be followed:

  • Adjusted targets set that is achievable if focused upon
  • Onsite training to help educate and reiterate the work requirements
  • Monitoring of performance for a specified period.

At this point, the employee may admit to having a drug or alcohol-related problem especially if they are unable to perform and maybe facing the possibility of a dismissal.

What employers can be doing to help staff with drug and alcohol addiction

Often, the drug or alcohol use is a symptom of a much bigger problem that may need to be acknowledged before assistance is sought by the employee, these could be personal issues such as:

  • Loss or grief
  • Divorce or relationship breakups
  • Being the main carer for children or other relatives

Or even issues within the work environment – Stress, bullying or harassment.

Conducting a meeting with the employee and taking a supportive approach may open the lines of communication up, whereby the employee feels understood and can admit to an issue with drugs or alcohol.

From this point a plan can be discussed that may involve:

  • Consultation with the company’s occupational health physician or the employee’s GP
  • Referral to treatment centres
  • Support groups
  • A reasonable timeframe in which the issue can be reviewed
  • Adequate time off to attend rehab if required – this may need to be structured around the individual as a response to recovery differs in each person and so to will their ability to return to work.

What organisations are available to assist employees with addiction treatment? Dependent on the level of dependency or addiction, which can only be determined by a medical professional, employees may require different treatments.

The most common are:

  • Private residential rehabilitation – this holds the highest chance for long-term recovery but involves a standard 28-day stay, but could be longer, this is followed by continued treatment as an outpatient
  • Participation in support groups such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain) or NA (UKNA | Narcotics Anonymous in the UK) provide the employee with peer-led support whilst in recovery.
  • General Practitioners may offer a treatment service but generally, they are the starting point for referral to specialist substance misuse treatment programs
  • Publically funded treatment centres through the NHS or charity organisations often have a long waiting list for residential treatment but offer outpatient counselling and treatment promptly
  • Daily counselling sessions during outpatient treatment
  • Depending on the substance of choice, the employee may require a daily monitored dose of medication dispensed from a pharmacy, this will generally need to be done during office hours.
  • Employee assistance programmes (EAP’s) are either outsourced or handled in-house depending on the employer’s needs.

There is no single addiction treatment organisation that can provide a magic solution, each person journey from addiction into recovery is different, it is important, however, to encourage the employee to take the first step and seek help.

What is an employer’s responsibility towards their employee’s treatment needs?

Support for an employee doesn’t end at treatment, returning to work can be daunting for an employee in recovery, they may have lost confidence, lack self-esteem or be unsure around their colleagues.

Good business practice means having a return-to-work plan that involves:

  • Regular contact and check-ins from their line manager &the organisation’s HR
  • An adequate settling in period for the employee to adjust to their work responsibilities
  • Flexible work times to accommodate counselling, doctors visits, medication collections etc
  • Stress reduction measures
  • Relapse monitoring

Employers’ responsibilities towards staff

Even if there is no evidence of drug and alcohol misuse, companies benefit from drawing up an implementable policy that is suitable to their field of operations.

ACAS has produced the following checklist on what should be included within a policy on drugs misuse at work:

  • The purpose of the policy –

This policy is designed to help protect employees from the dangers of drug and other substance misuse and to encourage those with a drugs problem to seek treatment.

  • The policy applies to everyone in the organisation
  • What are the rules on the use of drugs and other substances at work
  • Recognition by the company that a drug or alcohol problem may be an illness to be treated in the same way as any other illness
  • Potential dangers to the health and safety of drug and alcohol misusers and their colleagues if the problem is left untreated
  • Importance of early identification and treatment
  • What support or help is offered by the company
  • Disciplinary position.

The company may agree to suspend disciplinary action, where drug or alcohol misuse is a factor, on condition that the employee follows a suitable course of action.

  • Provision for paid sick leave for agreed treatment
  • Ensuring the employees right to return to the same job after treatment or, to suitable alternative employment wherever possible
  • Confidentiality assurance
  • Relapse policy and whether the employee will be allowed a second course of treatment
  • Education and training on substance use disorders
  • A statement that the policy will be regularly reviewed, has the support of all management and that, where appropriate, employee representation has been consulted with.

Addiction prevention & training

Substance Use Disorders and certain Behavioural addictions are recognised as mental health issues and sufferers deserve the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would receive if diagnosed with any other medical or psychological condition.

The Health And Safety Executive UK recommends consulting with all employees and actively involving them in the health and safety matters of the organisation.

  • Clear communication around the organisation’s drug and alcohol policies will help employers to manage addiction in their workforce by ensuring:
  • There is a clear understanding of the rules relating to alcohol and drug misuse – These rules and regulations should be discussed during any induction conducted whilst hiring new staff members as well as any follow up training done periodically
  • Education about the effects of drugs and alcohol misuse as well as early recognition of any problems
  • All employees are aware of the necessary company procedures and support offered that may be instituted should a problem arise
  • That key staff have been appointed and trained to understand the signs, symptoms and issues involved when drugs or alcohol misuse is evident and have the skills as well as knowledge on how to deal appropriately, with support and confidentiality should a problem arise
  • All employees are aware of the organisations’ willingness to support them if they acknowledge that they have developed a dependency problem and need help.

Drug & alcohol testing

Having drug and alcohol testing in the workplace needs to be consistent and communicated to employees, and above all must be justified. Having random tests can cause insecurity, mistrust and cause unnecessary stress amongst staff.

Whilst there are many ways in which an organisation can support their employees when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, recovery is solely within the hands of the person suffering from addiction and the responsibility lies with them not to work whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

UK Law and implications for employers

Having to discipline an otherwise top-class employee for suspected drug and alcohol abuse can be hard, it is important to remember, that it is not the employers’ responsibility to diagnose or treat a substance use disorder, but they can be held liable in a court of law if they knowingly allow drug-related activities to go on at work but do not act.

It is illegal if:

  1. Employees under the influence of excess alcohol are knowingly allowed to work
  2. Controlled substances are produced, supplied or used on an employer’s premises
  3. Drivers of road vehicles and transport system workers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol while working

Along with the legal implications of not acting, organisations that turn a blind eye to their employees’ drug and alcohol problems risk financial loss through the loss of productivity, increased onsite accidents, loss of employee morale and the general breakdown in the organisation’s culture.

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