Can you test employees working from home for drug and alcohol abuse?

With many firms’ plans to fully reopen offices now suspended, People Management asks the experts how to monitor and offer support on substance misuse remotely 

Drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace was an issue before lockdown. Research from the CIPD found that just over a quarter (26 per cent) of employers had disciplined someone for drug abuse in the last two years.

Now, with the added stresses of the pandemic – including furlough, redundancy, working from home and in many cases greater levels of isolation – there is a tinderbox environment for individuals with drug or alcohol problems. More than one in four (26 per cent) of those working from home because of lockdown who usually have a drink were imbibing more than usual, according to research by Drinkaware released in May. This rose to one in three (36 per cent) among those 9.6 million on furlough.

Last week, the Conservative candidate for the London mayoral election, Shaun Bailey, proposed a radical solution, calling for companies with more than 250 staff to be made to sign a drug-testing charter. The scheme, backed by home secretary Priti Patel, could see random drug tests made mandatory in workplaces.

But with no return to the office in sight – given the government’s recent U-turn and new guidance that staff should once again work from home where they can, potentially for the next six months – People Management asks whether you can test for drug and alcohol misuse while employees are working from home, and how to spot the signs of addiction and offer support remotely.

Are employees more at risk now remote working has been extended?

As the virus threatens to enter a second wave and employees are once again being told to work from home, those with dependencies could be put in a vulnerable position. Guy Pink, HR consultant and former HR director at addiction charity We Are With You (formerly Addaction), says remote working can make it harder for employers to identify those who are struggling.

“If you are seeing people on a regular basis, you can get a sense of how they are, but it’s much more difficult if you are only seeing them on a Zoom call and they can keep any issues they are having to themselves,” says Pink. “If they have friends and family around them then they will potentially have a support network, but if they live alone then that contact and support could be diminishing.”

The ongoing pandemic and current period of economic uncertainty could also make people feel more anxious or vulnerable, says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD. “[This] has led to concern about whether people are more likely to use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism,” she says. Suff advises that employers take “a preventative and proactive approach to drug and alcohol misuse and create a safe environment where people feel able to ask for support”.

How do I spot the signs where staff are working from home? 

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, points out that, especially with alcohol addiction, you can usually smell if someone has been or is currently inebriated. However, if employees are working from home the signs are harder to spot. “You couldn’t tell whether or not someone was uneasy on their feet or otherwise behaving out of the ordinary because of drink or drugs, so more reliance will have to be placed on observance of job performance,” says Lewis.

Managers should be trained on what signs to look out for – such as being consistently late for morning calls or errors creeping in that are not usually there – and on how to respond, he says.

Suff adds that line managers are usually the first to notice any unusual behaviour, and they should also be having regular catch-ups to monitor workloads and levels of stress. “Clear communication is key and asking questions about people’s wellbeing and how they’re coping is important to open up these conversations and give people the chance to talk about anything that’s worrying or concerning them,” she says.

“Managers should also be alert to potential signs of drug or alcohol misuse, such as changes in behaviour that are out of character.”

What should I do if I suspect an employee is misusing alcohol or drugs in working hours? When is disciplinary action appropriate?

The first step is to look at any policy you have on alcohol and drugs in the workplace, and then alert the person’s line manager, advises Lewis. “The advice will likely be to have a meeting with the individual – via phone or video call where people are working remotely – to find out more,” he says.

Lewis adds that many addicts are unlikely to acknowledge or admit there is an issue, and in that instance encouraging them to seek help with the employee assistance programme or occupational health would be beneficial. “What you don’t want to do is move straight to disciplinary action,” warns Lewis. “Addiction to drink or drugs is not like one-off incidents of being under the influence of drink or drugs at work. There is a condition that means the individual needs help.

“It is only when they repeatedly refuse to seek help or take steps to improve the position that you would look to discipline.”

There is no right or wrong approach, according to Liz Beck, MD and coach at Aspiring HR, so “judgement will be needed based on the trust in the relationship”. She adds that a gentle raising of the issue is the best tactic, alongside “leading with an approach of curiosity and support rather than criticism and judgement”. 

“The objective is to open dialogue rather than close it,” says Beck.

Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, adds that line managers are usually best placed to have these conversations, as they are more likely to know the individual and have closer daily interactions.

Should I introduce alcohol or drugs testing for those working from home?

Banning the use of alcohol or illegal substances during working hours is likely to be a reasonable and enforceable clause in an employment contract, says Beck. But, argues Suff, there still needs to be justification to introduce testing for workers, regardless of where they are based.

“If you don’t have a clear business reason, you should consider whether testing is appropriate. You will also need to consider what your 'trigger' for testing will be. For example, will it be any evidence of any drugs or any level of alcohol?” says Suff. There are also a number of important legal considerations to take into account in any testing framework, including data protection.

Lewis is sceptical about testing workers remotely. “Any policies on drug and alcohol testing in the workplace are unlikely to cover home workers,” he says. “There are limits in any case to what an employer can do even in the workplace. Employers need consent from employees to drug test in the workplace. They would certainly need consent to drug test workers at home but in reality I cannot see this happening or being practicable.” 

And if you are doing drug testing to weedle out those employees that may yield a positive test result, says Pink, then you are “not a very ethical employer”. He advises having support in place for those who do test positive, “rather than saying ‘you’re sacked’”.

How can I best support line managers?

Training for line managers is essential, says Suff, who points out that CIPD research found this area lacking in organisations. “The CIPD’s guide for managers offers practical advice on how to provide support and deal with disclosures from employees about drug or alcohol misuse,” she says.

There are various online training programmes available, says Lewis, including some targeted specifically at high-risk sectors such as hospitality and construction. These deal with issues including how to investigate concerns, how to offer support and employers’ legal responsibilities, and should be included in drug and alcohol policies.

Bullivant suggests mental health first aider courses as an excellent way to support line managers, who can be sent on a two-day course that covers alcohol and drugs. “While this will focus on the interaction between this issue and mental health, it also provides invaluable guidance on how to tackle all sensitive conversations,” she highlights. If training isn’t an option at the moment, Mental Health First Aid England also has downloadable guides to help managers and HR departments deal with these sensitive conversations.