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How should employers manage substance misuse at work?

25 Aug 2020 By Eleanor Whitehouse

Drink and drug abuse was already a growing issue prior to mass home working, but many firms are ill-equipped to offer support

"Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, describing a drink or two’s sometimes seemingly magical ability to make the mundane or stressful feel more manageable. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the British population turned to it in their droves when the government announced lockdown measures earlier in 2020. According to consumer analysts Kantar, alcohol sales outstripped even food purchases in the immediate aftermath, increasing 22 per cent in March 2020 compared to the previous month, and totalling £199m more than the same period in 2019.

Additionally, in research by alcohol education charity Drinkaware in May  more than one in four (26 per cent) of those working from home because of lockdown who usually drink said they were doing so more than usual. This rose to one in three (36 per cent) among those 9.6 million on furlough, with 15 per cent of furloughed workers who usually drink reporting having their first drink earlier in the day than they would usually, and 9 per cent saying they’d either had a drink in secret or covered it up (compared to the UK average of 5 per cent). 

For those on furlough, as well as a way to deal with stress and uncertainty, the increase can be put down to simply not having to get up for work the next morning, says Dr Rob Hampton of RHH Medical, an occupational physician and GP with an extended role in drug and alcohol treatment. “Someone coined the phrase ‘every night’s a Friday night’ at the start of lockdown, and that just encapsulates it,” he says. “Many people have got no other responsibilities.” 

At the more extreme end of the scale, Hampton also reports seeing an increase in small business owners and self-employed patients in his role treating those with particularly advanced substance misuse issues. “There are more people coming through who were coping with hazardous levels of drinking before, but then lost their entire businesses within a week because of Covid-19 and turned to dependent drinking,” he says.

Dr Jill Miller, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, describes Drinkaware’s findings as “concerning”, highlighting that many employees are experiencing “significant changes” to their lives and work routines. However, the problem is not limited to lockdown. Dame Carol Black’s 2016 review into the impact of drug or alcohol addiction and obesity on employment found that “around a million adults in this country have some form of alcohol dependence”, while 2018 research by Drinkaware found 15 per cent of the UK’s adult population are classed as ‘high risk’ drinkers. Similarly, the 2018-19 Crime Survey for England and Wales found 9.4 per cent of adults aged between 16 and 59 had taken a controlled drug in the last year, and 2016 research by Crossland Employment Solicitors discovered more than a third (35 per cent) of employees know or suspect their colleagues have a drug problem or take illegal substances either during or outside work.

But it seems many employers still only see drug or alcohol issues as something to be addressed if or when they begin to affect an employee’s performance, as opposed to incorporating this into their wellbeing strategy. The CIPD’s new report, Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, found nearly a fifth (19 per cent) of businesses see drug and alcohol misuse mainly as a disciplinary issue, despite more than a third (35 per cent) having disciplined someone for alcohol misuse in the last two years, and just over a quarter (26 per cent) for drug misuse. 

By not offering any kind of support for such issues, employers could, however, be falling foul of the law. The most stringent legal obligations on this in the UK are for health and safety-critical industries where being under the influence at work is an instantly dismissible offence. But other employers must be mindful of the Equality Act 2010, as alcohol or drug problems – while not classed as a disability in their own right – may be caused by something classed as a disability, such as depression or anxiety. In which case employers would be required to make reasonable adjustments and dismissing an employee without offering any support would likely be held unfair by a tribunal, explains Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors: “The employer may have had a fair reason to dismiss if someone is under the influence. But the second question is whether they followed a fair process, and that’s where they’re likely to fall down.”

And regardless of the legal onus here, there’s an important ethical (not to mention reputational) dimension, says Guy Pink, HR consultant and former HR director at addiction charity We Are With You (formerly Addaction). “You wouldn’t dismiss someone who told you they had a mental health issue or a broken leg, so why would you dismiss someone with alcohol or drug issues?” he points out. “It should be seen as a wellbeing issue. Support should be provided to enable that person to take control of their life and return to the workplace as a fully functioning member of the team.” 

There’s a clear commercial imperative too. Alcohol-related sickness absence costs the UK economy more than £7.3bn per year, according to 2017 research by Drinkaware. And the cost to an individual business of dismissing someone, the resulting productivity lag and rehiring and training a replacement, would likely outweigh the cost of supporting them through their issues in the first place, Pink adds.

“Employers have a really key role to play in preventative action,” echoes Miller. “They should take a proactive approach where people can come forward and ask for help and not feel it’s going to be held against them. They need to create a supportive workplace and ensure they can hang on to talented people who might need support for that specific period of their life.” 

So how can organisations move away from seeing substance misuse purely as a disciplinary issue towards it forming part of a holistic wellbeing offering? As well as outlining reporting processes, testing guidelines and procedures for disciplinaries, employers should ensure they have a drug and alcohol policy that “has a strong focus on wellbeing”, so it’s clear where the organisation stands, says Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware. “I can’t stress how important a policy is, but as part of a wider preventative approach,” she says.

But, although the CIPD’s report found three-quarters (77 per cent) of organisations have either a joint drug and alcohol policy or separate ones, it also revealed wellbeing was only the second most popular reason for introducing them, with 51 per cent of employers citing it as a driver – slightly behind health and safety (57 per cent) and just ahead of preventing inappropriate workplace behaviour (48 per cent). 

Sunderland says a well-drafted policy will encourage an employee who has a problem to disclose it, with the reassurance that this will be confidential. Employers must then offer support, she says: “Not necessarily a stay at the Priory, but allowing them time off during the working day to attend meetings or go to counselling, and pointing them in the direction of where they can get help. Knowing their employer isn’t going to sack them immediately and will be supportive to a certain level will be very important to them.”

However, although the majority of employers have formal procedures in place, fewer have implemented any kind of support mechanism. As the first port of call for many employees’ problems, line managers are indispensable when it comes to effectively managing workplace alcohol and drug issues. Yet the CIPD research found just one in four (25 per cent) organisations provide regular refresher training for line managers on substance misuse in the workplace, and only one in 10 (12 per cent) provide one-off training. “The role of a line manager is absolutely key in supporting anyone who may have a substance misuse issue,” says Pink, who highlights the benefits of training in having difficult conversations, which can be helpful in many scenarios. “An individual who discloses a problem to their line manager will want to know that manager is going to be supportive and helpful.”

Even though a manager, especially if in a smaller businesses, may not have to deal with substance abuse issues regularly, it’s still important they are aware of how to manage them, explains Miller. “We’re expecting a huge amount from line managers, and if someone discloses an issue we don’t want them to be put on the back foot. Training is therefore essential,” she says. Indeed, the CIPD research found that of those organisations that use training to help recognise the symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse, more than eight in 10 (84 per cent) say it is effective or very effective.

As well as knowing where to point staff to for further information or support – such as an employee assistance programme, their GP, a self-help group or a specialist treatment organisation – managers need to be able to spot issues in the first place if the employee is reluctant to disclose, and discuss them in a sensitive and supportive way. But, although there are several indicators – such as increased absence, poor timekeeping or reduced productivity – employers should “err on the side of caution”, warns Miller, as these signs could also point to other issues. 

Managers should also remember these signs will be more difficult to spot while an employee is on furlough or working remotely, which is “a very different context”, says Miller. As well as having regular catch-ups with employees where a standard agenda item is to ask an open question about someone’s wellbeing, she also recommends employers send frequent communications via HR about the wellbeing support on offer. “A lot of organisations are keeping in touch socially during lockdown, which is when you might also spot issues,” she adds.

However, although mostly virtual under current circumstances, when they eventually return to normal, social occasions themselves can be challenging for employees with alcohol or drug issues. HR must ensure their company’s culture is open and encourages workers to raise concerns, either about themselves or a colleague. And they must avoid social activities revolving solely around drinking so those experiencing problems aren’t alienated or put under pressure. Indeed, the CIPD’s report found that three-quarters (74 per cent) of businesses allow alcohol at employer-organised events, but two-fifths (41 per cent) say it can lead to problems. As Hindal points out, UK culture sees drinking like it saw smoking a generation ago, when cigarette breaks were commonplace and those who didn’t partake were asked why. “We don’t think twice about going to the pub after work, or asking someone who isn’t drinking if they’re on antibiotics”, she says.

“We use alcohol to celebrate, to commiserate, as a reward and to induct new people into the team. But times are changing – around a third of people under 30 don’t drink at all, so this excludes a significant proportion of the workforce.” Additionally, Sunderland points out that unless they have taken reasonable steps to make it clear what isn’t acceptable, employers are vicariously liable for their employees’ actions at social occasions.

So as the UK potentially moves towards social occasions once again being held without a webcam, and workers returning to the office, it’s even more critical that businesses remember their health and wellbeing responsibilities – including on substance misuse. “People have developed some bad habits in lockdown, like drinking more and drinking earlier, but there may be some simple interventions that can help reset these,” says Hindal. “That doesn’t necessarily mean going into treatment – it could be as simple as a listening ear with a non-judgmental approach and being pointed towards an app or an email programme.”

And it’s Hampton’s hope that in future drug and alcohol misuse will be more widely acknowledged as the problem it is: “Of all the issues that affect the working population, it’s right up there on the list, but it’s one of the least addressed – yet most people who die of liver disease are working age. Mental health, for example, was once seen as the ‘Cinderella’ of medicine, but there’s huge momentum behind improving that now. Substance misuse is still the problem no one dares speak of, but hopefully that will change.”

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