Employer support on alcohol and drug misuse lacking, report finds

Organisations urged to treat this as a wellbeing rather than disciplinary issue, as research finds a quarter of employees are drinking more because of Covid-19

People are drinking more during the pandemic but many businesses don’t offer employees proactive support on drug and alcohol misuse, according to research. 

Almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of employers don’t provide paid time off for employees undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction or drug misuse, while half (49 per cent) don’t provide unpaid time off either, a survey from the CIPD has found.

Only 27 per cent of employers offered information for staff about how to disclose a problem with alcohol or drugs, according to the CIPD’s Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work report.

The survey of almost 800 HR decision-makers revealed that many businesses also don’t offer consistent training for managers on these issues. Only 12 per cent of employers provided one-off training for line managers and a quarter (25 per cent) offered regular refresher training. Meanwhile, only a quarter (26 per cent) trained managers to recognise the symptoms of drug and alcohol problems.

The issue is particularly pertinent to address currently, the CIPD said, with its research finding that 27 per cent of employees reported increased alcohol consumption as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions. 

The report stated: “There is a strong argument for greater preventative action and employer support for drug and alcohol misuse in difficult social and economic times, when people may feel anxious and more vulnerable.”

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The research followed a survey by alcohol charity Drinkaware earlier this month, which found that two in five people on furlough (38 per cent) and a third of parents with at least one child under 18 (33 per cent) had been drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown.

High workloads and caring responsibilities also affected alcohol consumption, the CIPD found. Its survey highlighted that those reporting a high workload were more likely to say their alcohol consumption had increased – 31 per cent compared to 24 per cent. Meanwhile, 37 per cent of those who had seen a change in their caring responsibilities said their alcohol consumption had increased, compared to a quarter (25 per cent) of those who hadn’t. 

The CIPD highlighted the need for employers to take a preventative approach to drug and alcohol misuse among their workforces. It called on employers to provide training for managers so they could support employees with alcohol addiction and drug misuse issues. 

“The coronavirus pandemic and the current period of economic uncertainty could make people feel more anxious or vulnerable, which has led to concern about whether people may be more likely to use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism,” said Jill Miller, senior policy adviser at the CIPD.

“With around a quarter of people saying their alcohol consumption has increased over the last few months, this has the potential to negatively impact on their work.”

Miller said organisations must recognise drug and alcohol misuse as a health, safety and employee wellbeing concern, rather than just a disciplinary issue. 

Just over a third (35 per cent) of employers had disciplined someone in the past two years for alcohol misuse and just over a quarter (26 per cent) had done so for drug misuse. Meanwhile, around a fifth of employers had made dismissals in the last two years where a significant reason was drug and/or alcohol misuse. One fifth saw alcohol and drug misuse as mainly a performance or disciplinary issue.

However, around two-thirds (69 per cent) of the organisations surveyed said the most recent employee they had referred to treatment or rehab had remained an employee. This, the CIPD said, suggested that support could be positive for employees’ careers and help employers to retain staff.

“By having a clear policy in place that sets expectations about behaviour and prioritises genuine support for wellbeing, employers can create a safe environment where people feel able to ask for support. This could encourage people to seek help before a concern becomes a real issue,” Miller said.

Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware, which advised the CIPD’s report, said: “There is evidence to suggest many people use alcohol to cope with increased workloads, stress, anxiety and uncertainty. And our own research tells us that millions of people have been drinking more than they usually would over the past few months.

 “This report from the CIPD couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. It’s more important than ever for organisations to be aware of alcohol misuse and to signpost their staff to appropriate support.

“Organisations are in a strong position to engage with their staff about alcohol awareness, and now is the time to prioritise employee health and wellbeing – whether parts of the workforce are on furlough, working from home or are adapting to changes in their normal work environments.”

The CIPD has issued guidance alongside the report for employers on managing alcohol and drug misuse at work.