Alcohol and Drugs in the Workplace

Christmas is a time when many of us enjoy socialising with our friends and work colleagues. There are some instances, however where drugs and alcohol may be involved, and it is important to have clear policies in place which are communicated to your employees.  Drug and alcohol abuse should never be tolerated in the workplace and therefore as an employer, it is important to understand the signs and what can be done to help and employee that may find themselves in a situation that could be detrimental to their performance at work.

The misuse of drugs, alcohol and/or substances not only affects individual health but can also impact on work performance, time keeping, absence levels, conduct and relationships at work. Many drugs stay in people’s systems for longer than that of alcohol. Therefore there may be employees attending work still with drugs in their systems, sometimes unknowingly.


“Drugs or substance abuse” means any substance capable of causing intoxication. This includes all controlled drugs contained in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and specifically includes: cannabis (marijuana), opiates (including heroin), cocaine, any prescription drugs (including amphetamines and barbiturates) which are not obtained and used in a legally issued medical prescription, and any over-the-counter medicine or substance which is deliberately misused so as to impair the individual.

“Alcohol” means any ethyl-alcohol containing product which, if consumed, has the capacity to induce intoxication.

“Solvent abuse” means the use of certain volatile organic solvents as intoxicants by inhalation, eg glue-sniffing.

“Legal highs” contain synthetic chemical compounds and can have a range of effects on users but basically they imitate the effects of illegal drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis. They are often marketed as incense, bath salts or plant food. In 2014, the Office for National Statistics reported that 129 people died in England, Wales and Scotland due to taking legal highs. Acas advises employers to treat legal highs in the same way as alcohol and drug misuse.

The effects of drugs/substance abuse

The effects of illegal substances vary, including dizziness, slowing down and feelings of sleepiness, excessive thirst, being detached from reality, suffering from hallucinations etc. Solvent abuse in particular can lead to a slow heart rate, slower breathing, feeling of being drunk, loss of coordination, drowsy and feeling hungover.

Accidental death or injury can happen especially if inhaling at work in an unsafe environment.

Drug and solvent misuse can lead to changes in behaviour which can have an impact on job performance, absenteeism and relationships with work colleagues. The employee’s absence record may indicate a problem (eg unscheduled short-term absences with or without explanation, leaving work early etc).

Whilst at work, signs to watch out for include sudden mood swings, irritability or aggression, confusion, dishonesty and theft (linked to feeding a drug-taking habit), also repeated absence from post, frequent trips to the cloakroom and the taking of long or more frequent breaks.

The effects of alcohol consumption

The use of alcohol affects individuals in different ways and there are a number of variables (such as the person’s sex, size and weight) that mean some people feel the effects more quickly, and to a greater degree than others, when drinking the same amount.

However, the impact of alcohol (even with a relatively low intake) is likely to affect the drinker’s thinking, judgement, mood, co-ordination and speed of reaction.

Increased amounts can lead to significant mood swings and violence. In tandem with this is the physical damage that excessive drinking can cause: consumption of alcohol is known to increase blood pressure and has been linked to heart disease and associated coronary problems.

Preventing problems in the workplace

Health promotion programmes offered in the workplace may reduce employees’ alcohol or drug/solvent-related problems. It is vital that managers understand the magnitude of substance abuse in the workplace and know how to identify impaired or ‘under-the-influence’ employees.

Employers must be able to effectively manage potential incidents before they occur. Drug, alcohol and solvent abuse impacts safety, productivity and the cost of doing business.

It may be necessary for an individual who has problems related to substance abuse or alcoholism to attend meetings or outpatient clinics, undertake therapy, or even be admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in the most extreme cases.

It is important in such situations to consider how your business can support these employees. Review your absence policies or employee handbook – do you have provision for time off related to such issues? Will you apply your disciplinary procedure?

This will be one of those issues that you will need to monitor on a case by case basis, but with an initial emphasis on support and empathy, so far as this is possible, rather than punishing the employee and adding to his/her problems.

Workplace testing and search

Workplace testing is becoming increasingly common in the UK. This is due to rising awareness of the significant problems associated with drug use and a growing trend of larger companies pressurising their suppliers to operate a workplace drug testing policy themselves.

In the USA, well over 90% of the top 1000 companies operate some form of drug testing in the workplace, and the benefits have become clear, with marked reductions in accidents, litigation, ill-health, absenteeism, reduced productivity and crime.

Such testing is only ever likely to be justified for health and safety reasons; where employers suspect illegal use when this breaches the worker’s contract of employment or where it could cause ‘substantial damage’ to the employer’s reputation. For this reason you should undertake an impact assessment to ensure the benefits justify any testing.

Further information

If you require any specialist support with drugs or alcohol, please see the helpful links below for more information.

Drugs: the NHS has a useful guide on drug misuse; Drugscope offers information on drugs and solvents, and the National Drugs Helpline gives free help and advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tel: 0800 776600. Narcotics Anonymous is a self-help group run by recovering addicts with a network of meetings across the country, tel: 0300 999 1212. Families Anonymous supports relatives and friends of people with drug problems, tel: 0207 4984 680.

Alcohol: the charity Alcohol Concern offers guidance on alcohol related problems. Al-Anon offers support for anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking problem, tel: 0800 0086 811 and Alcoholics Anonymous is a self-help group run by recovering alcoholics, tel: 0800 9177650.

Solvents: the charity Re-Solv helps anyone whose life is affected by volatile substance abuse, whether directly or indirectly. Tel: 01785 810762, email: [email protected]

We are here to help

If you require any further support with your business including your HR, Payroll or Health and Safety, please contact us and speak to a member of the team.




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