Drug and Alcohol Use a Growing Problem in UK Workplaces

Drug and alcohol use is a growing problem in UK workplaces, according to a recent report by the British Medical Association (BMA). Despite the inability to accurately quantify the scale of substance use in working populations due to insufficient data, the BMA can still discern a trend of increased alcohol and drug use among those who work. Alcohol and illicit drug use is thus a major issue for workplaces and a growing concern for employers.

The figures are sobering—in 2011, there were 8,748 alcohol-related deaths reported and 1,785 related to illicit drug use. The actual figures are likely higher, since alcohol and drug use indirectly contribute to more deaths besides those reported. The BMA report shows that individuals in employment are more likely to drink frequently compared to the unemployed. And although rates of illicit drug use among workers may be lower than the rates for unemployed drug users, the gap between the two groups continues to narrow.

These alarming trends spell bad news for UK employers—illicit drink and drug use cause a whole host of problems in the workplace, including absenteeism, low productivity, inappropriate behaviour, poor decision-making, impaired reaction times, errors and accidents.

How can employers reverse this growing trend?

Since you are legally obligated under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, your employees’ health, safety and welfare at work, make their health and safety your first priority. Use the following advice as a foundation for building an effective workplace culture that eschews illicit drug and excessive alcohol use:

• Implement an alcohol and drug (substance use) policy.
• Train managers and supervisors to recognise the signs of drink and drug abuse. They should be prepared to approach an employee they suspect has a problem or to counsel an employee who approaches them with a problem.
• Classify drink and drug problems as health problems and deal with them accordingly—with strict confidentiality.
• Aim to help employees with a problem rather than simply dismissing them.
• Treat absence due to alcohol or illicit drug use the same as any other cause under your workplace absence policy.

If the drink and drug problem with your employees is excessive, consider instituting workplace screening and testing. But be careful—compliant workplace testing can be tricky. You must appropriately safeguard samples, ensure that competent practitioners interpret the results, and comply with medical best practices and data protection requirements.

Refer to competent legal advice to ensure you follow all drug and alcohol screening regulations.