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Dealing with Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

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Employers should know how to spot drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace and be ready to tackle it. Failure to do so can affect the business, compromise the safety of other workers and lead to criminal convictions. Further, ignoring the problem will not help the person involved to come to terms with their misuse and potential addiction.

What is Drug Misuse?

Drug misuse covers the illegal use of a wide range of illegal drugs including heroin, ecstacy and LSD as well as steroids, poppers and solvents. But more widely defined substance abuse includes the misuse of more "acceptable" substances like alcohol.

Some people might not be aware that they are misusing drugs or alcohol simply because their consumption is seen as part of the culture of their work.

The effects of workers misusing drug and alcohol in the workplace are well documented and include:

  • loss of productivity; 
  • higher absenteeism and more claims made on health insurance policies; 
  • the safety of both the worker and co-workers is compromised – there is a higher risk of accidents;
  • the potential for perpetration of criminal acts  in the workplace (such as obtaining illegal drugs); and
  • dealing with the distraction of disciplinary proceedings, higher turnover of staff and having to train others.

The effects on workers is often stark:

  • personal efficiency and decision-making is hampered; 
  • performance is slowed down by withdrawal and hangovers; 
  • there can be long-term damage to health; 
  • co-workers can be demoralised simply by having to cope with or make-up for their colleagues' poor performance; and/or
  • misusers are potentially more likely to commit criminal acts in the workplace (for example, supply or purchase of drugs or theft).

Legal Duties and Consequences

Employers have legal duties to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees at work so far as reasonably practicable. These duties are set out in various statutes and breach can mean criminal convictions. For example:

  • driving a motor vehicle under the influence of drink or drugs is an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988;
  • under the Transport and Works Act 1992, it is an offence for some workers to work on railways if unfit through drug or alcohol consumption; and
  • knowingly permitting the use of cannabis in the workplace is an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

These are just a few examples – there are various other offences.

Employees should also remember that they too have a duty to take care of themselves.

What can Employers Do?

There are a number of things employers can do to eliminate and discourage substance abuse in the workplace. Read on for some suggestions and questions to consider.

  • What policies are in place in your business to deal with substance abuse? Is it perfectly clear to employees that drink and drugs within working hours – or attending work while under the influence is a disciplinary offence?
  • If no policies are in place, draft and implement them, preferably with input from employees to gain team buy-in.
  • Review policies regularly to ensure they are working and appropriate for your workplace.
  • It might be appropriate to introduce screening for abuse, but screening should not be implemented unless it is likely to prevent risks to the misuser or his/her colleagues.
  • Introduce training schemes to ensure everyone understands what substance abuse is and the dangers of substance abuse (and that will include the dangers of regular visits to the pub to enhance camaraderie).
  • Train managers and supervisors to recognise the signs of substance abuse. 
  • Drug misuse is a health issue: respect the privacy of those suffering with a drug misuse problem – while being aware of the legal position should laws have been broken.
  • Encourage those who are suffering from addiction to come forward by offering discreet help and support. Implement confidential programmes to support sufferers.
  • Ensure your disciplinary procedures allow scope to help employees suffering with drug misuse problems.
  • Review your workplace culture. Do employees regularly meet in the pub for a drink after work? Is business done in that after work environment? Do employees feel obliged to join in?
  • Bear in mind that predominantly male-oriented workplaces, such as those in heavy engineering and construction have been shown to be more likely to have substance abuse problems.
  • What hours are employees working? Do they have enough breaks and rest periods? Are they regularly working overtime?
  • How accessible are drugs and alcohol in the workplace? Are they easy to get hold of? What levels of supervision are in force? (More supervision might reduce the levels of substance abuse.)

Read More

There is a considerable amount of information available to help employers deal with substance abuse in the workplace. For example, the Government has produced a guide to Drug Misuse at Work, which you can read here.

This guide includes details of organisations that can help you and information to help you understand more about drugs and how they affect people – so that you can take appropriate action (as summarised above).


To discuss how to deal with substance abuse in the workplace and implementing appropriate workplace policies, contact Susan Mayall on 0161 684 6948 or make an enquiry.



Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.

This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.

Written by Susan Mayall


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