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May 25, 2011

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Drugs and alcohol – One for the road

Statistics show a continuing rise in workplace problems due to substance use by employees in their leisure time, and many managers say this is one of the main issues they feel least equipped to deal with. John Griffiths describes a new European project to help managers in SMEs address the impact on work performance of inappropriate alcohol and drug use.

Mention drugs and alcohol and many people will conjure up stereotypical images of alcoholics and junkies, but these are only part of the story. We live in a society in which the recreational use of alcohol and drugs is accepted, both are more widely available than ever before, and abuse of these substances is often well hidden.

The problems associated with alcohol and drug use – social costs, increased crime, civil disorder, and ill health – are felt in many different settings, including the workplace. In the context of work, not only can drugs and alcohol damage the user’s health but they can also cost employers through absenteeism, reduced productivity and, potentially, more accidents.

According to the UK Government’s Strategy Unit, the alcohol-related output loss to the UK economy was up to £6.4 billion a year1 due to:

increased sickness absence (women drinking seven or more units, or men drinking 14 or more units a week, raises the likelihood of absence from work through injury by 20 per cent);

  • the inability to work (unemployment and early retirement); and
  • premature deaths among economically active people (people of working age).

The economic and social costs of Class A drug use in England are estimated to have been around €22.3 billion in 2003/04.2

Facing up to the facts

Employers who experience difficulties with behaviour related to alcohol or drug use are usually dealing not with an alcoholic or junkie but a typical employee with an incapacity or misconduct issue, whose work performance is affected. The astute manager will recognise this and act appropriately. But many managers feel uncomfortable, or ill-equipped to confront the problem, and thus defer taking action until it becomes acute, or too late.

The likely cause of impaired work performance is the employee’s drinking, or drug-taking behaviour out of work – for example, drinking with friends and then reporting for work at 7.30 the following morning while still under the influence of the alcohol consumed many hours before. More and more employers need to consider when the inappropriate use of alcohol and drugs becomes a performance or safety issue, and therefore a management issue.

For managers in SMEs, where extensive human-resource management and occupational-health provision may not be on hand, dealing with staff whose work performance is adversely affected by their use of alcohol and drugs can be challenging and difficult.

The legal position

Employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If an employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of drugs or excess alcohol to continue working, and this places the employee or others at risk, they could be prosecuted.3

Employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do. In the transport industry, there is additional legislation in place to control the misuse of alcohol and drugs.
Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, drivers of road vehicles must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while driving, attempting to drive, or when they are in charge of a vehicle. The Transport and Works Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence for certain workers to be unfit through drink and/or drugs while working on railways, tramways, and other guided transport systems. The operators of the transport system would also be guilty of an offence unless they had shown all due diligence in trying to prevent such an offence being committed.

Screening and testing

Some employers have adopted drug and alcohol screening as part of their drugs and alcohol policy. Think very carefully about what you want screening to do, and what you will do with the information it generates. Screening by itself will never be the complete answer to problems caused by drug or alcohol misuse; prevention is just as important.

More companies – particularly those in safety-sensitive industries – are using screening and testing as a way of controlling drug and alcohol problems. It can be used in various ways – for example:

  • as part of a selection process for job applicants;
  • testing all or part of the workforce routinely, occasionally, or on a random basis;
  • in specific circumstances, such as after an accident or incident, where there is evidence of drinking that contravenes the company’s regulations, or as part of an after-care rehabilitation programme; and
  • to monitor a particular problem, e.g. employees reporting for work with alcohol in their bloodstream from the previous evening’s drinking.

Drug and alcohol screening is a sensitive issue. It is essential to secure the agreement of the workforce to the principle of screening because of the practical and legal issues involved. Screening is only likely to be acceptable if it can be seen to be part of a company’s occupational-health policy and is clearly designed to prevent risks to others.

Agreement to the principle of screening must be incorporated in each member of staff’s contract of employment. For new staff, this is fairly straightforward but existing staff are under no legal obligation to agree to changes in their terms and conditions of service. If an employer tried to force a test on an unwilling employee, the employee could resign and claim ‘constructive dismissal’.

In addition to changes to the contract of employment, the written consent of the individual must be obtained for each test. This consent applies only to tests relating specifically to alcohol and to no other substances, condition, or disease. Where more extensive testing is required, e.g. for drug abuse, it is necessary to obtain further consent from the employee.

Help at hand

In February 2009, an application was submitted to the Leonardo LifeLong Learning Programme4 for project funding to develop a training programme for managers in small and medium-sized enterprises. A course for SME managers called ‘Maximising Employee Performance by Minimising the Impact of Substances’ – MEPMIS – commenced in October 2009.

The aim was to develop a training resource (Web-based and face-to-face) for managers in SMEs that will equip them with the appropriate skills, knowledge and understanding to enable them to deal both proactively and reactively with the issue of substances and their impact on work and employment.

Seven partners from across the EU, including a research agency (Ireland), a university (Italy), an institute of occupational health medicine (Poland), a Web design and IT company (Greece), and three small consultancies (Hungary, the Netherlands and UK) are collaborating to deliver the project. A Project Advisory Group comprising five members was established to reflect the views and interests of key stakeholders – employers, trade unions, health and safety and treatment agencies – and much valuable advice has been given and received.

The first major output of the project was the results of a needs analysis undertaken across the partnership countries. Including both qualitative and quantitative questions, the analysis provided a wealth of information that was used to shape the development of the training resources. By obtaining the views and opinions of professionals in each of the countries, it was possible to identify which areas or issues required the most attention in the training course.

The elements were categorised by importance, with reference to the existing levels of knowledge and skills in that particular area. This information has provided the basis for the development of a detailed training course, specified and tailored for particular target-group needs.

The following elements were among those rated as the most important and the training has been developed to address these:

  • Recognising the signs and symptoms of alcohol or drug misuse;
  • Employer awareness of relevant legislation;
  • Providing training on how to manage the issue for people who must manage it;
  • Disciplinary procedures regarding drugs and alcohol at the workplace;
  • Organisational policies, practices and systems to manage alcohol and drugs at work;
  • Workplace health promotion;
  • Information on the impact of alcohol and drug use on employee performance;
  • How to organise early intervention;
  • Having a holistic policy and programme on drugs and alcohol at work;
  • Occupational health services;
  • The benefits to the employee of return to work;
  • Services available to help employees and employers;
  • Communication with employees on all aspects of alcohol and drugs practices; and
  • Employer knowledge of medical rehabilitation services.

Other topics suggested included:

  • The business case for managing alcohol and drugs at work (for the employer);
  • Knowledge of the best ways to work with external treatment providers in the area;
  • Information on the main types of drugs that are abused;
  • Information on the people most likely to abuse alcohol or drugs; and
  • Knowledge of the different types of drugs and alcohol screening/testing at the workplace.

The training modules

Both the e-learning and face-to-face training resources are modular. The latter has options for a one or two-day training course, depending on the needs and preferences of participants. The course begins with a general introduction, including the business case, the rationale for a proactive approach, and a definition of the terms used. It proceeds to examine:

  • the best corporate approach to tackle alcohol and drug use;
  • the legal principles that underpin any action that a manager or business should take, including health and safety law, human-rights legislation and data-protection issues;
  • managerial knowledge, skills and competencies, which includes spotting signs and symptoms, as well as discipline and support;
  • testing, with all its associated pros and cons;
  • substances of concern and how they affect behaviour and performance;
  • and finally, and most importantly, putting the theory into practice.

The e-learning is also modular. It covers the same topics as the face-to-face training, with participants following a train of events in one of three fictitious company case studies – a manufacturing company, an IT company, and a removals/storage provider. At each stage the participants’ own views and approaches are challenged and, where necessary, advice based on good practice is provided.

Both sets of materials have been field-tested in each of the partner countries via self-complete questionnaires and focus groups. The formal launch of the materials will take place in June.5

The website and further information about the project, including how to access the training materials, is available through This includes a link to the European Network for Mental Health Promotion Portal, which provides access to a wide range of workplace-related resources on mental health and well-being – both closely linked to the problematic use of alcohol and drugs.    

1    Strategy Unit Alcohol Harm Reduction project (2003): Interim Analytical Report for the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy
2    Department of Health (2007): ‘Reitox National Focal Point. United Kingdom drug situation: Annual report to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) 2007’ –
4    Leonardo is part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. It supports the development of skills and training, as well as European projects to develop training materials, courses and frameworks, working with European partners –
5    The e-learning module is free and the resources on the website are freely available to download and use. The face-to-face training is currently free, and will remain so until September. Future charging depends on demand. It is recommended that trainers are trained before using the materials, as some skills and techniques are essential if the course is to be a success

John Griffiths heads up Cardiff-based health promotion consultancy, Work2health Ltd, which is leading the MEPMIS project.

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