Drug and alcohol misuse are significant issues within society and therefore also workplaces. Particularly at the moment, with numerous surveys showing some people are drinking more as a result of the pandemic, businesses need to ensure they are effectively supporting their workforces. Substance misuse is primarily a health, safety and wellbeing concern and can ultimately lead to incidents and accidents as well as both performance and productivity issues.

We are calling on employers to take a more preventative and proactive approach to supporting employees who may be vulnerable or struggling with misuse. Employers need to begin by recognising and framing drug and alcohol misuse as a health, safety and wellbeing concern, not just a disciplinary issue. Encouragingly, our new research on Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work found that around half of employers do view and manage misuse as a combined health, safety and wellbeing and performance/disciplinary issue. However, one-fifth said it’s treated as mainly a performance and disciplinary issue.

The benefits of treating misuse as a wellbeing issue

Disciplinary action shouldn’t be the default position in every case and supporting employee wellbeing is crucial regardless of whether formal disciplinary action is required. By treating misuse as a wellbeing issue, this can:

  • Encourage people who are struggling to come forward and ask for help and support.
  • Support an employer’s duty of care to staff.
  • Prevent problems becoming real issues in the workplace.
  • Enable organisations to retain talented people.
  • Enhance the employer’s reputation through supporting people in a difficult time in their life.

The need for a clear policy

To create a safe environment where people feel able to ask for help, it’s essential to have a clear policy in place which sets expectations about behaviour and outlines the consequences of contravening the rules, while also prioritising genuine support for employee wellbeing. There should also be guidance for employees about how to disclose an issue or concern, and what to expect. In our survey, just 27% of employers said they do this.

The vital role of line managers

The majority of the 787 HR professionals we surveyed told us that the most effective way of helping prevent misuse was to invest in training for line managers. However, not enough organisations are providing that training. 

  • Just 12% of employers provide one-off training for line managers on their drug and alcohol policy and procedures, and just a quarter provide regular training on them. 
  • A quarter of employers train line managers to recognise the symptoms of drug and alcohol problems.
  • A third invest in improving management practice in managing and supporting employees more generally.

To provide proactive support, line managers need to feel confident and capable to respond when an employee discloses a problem. They also need to be able to signpost people to the support available both internally and externally. Managers shouldn’t try to provide support themselves as they’re not trained professionals, but instead, they should focus on signposting and putting any workplace adjustments in place that enable people to get the support they need. For example, ensuring flexibility in working hours to attend appointments with a counsellor, health professional or mutual aid meetings. 

Regular catch-ups with each team member are also important, particularly at the moment when many people are still working remotely. Managers should ask open-ended questions about their wellbeing and if there’s any support they need, giving people the opportunity to disclose an issue if they want to. Managers can also flag any concerns they may have, for example, ‘I’ve noticed you haven’t been quite yourself recently, are you ok?’. However, they should be cautious about jumping to conclusions, as the signs that may lead you to suspect drug or alcohol misuse could actually reflect a completely different issue.

Whether an employee discloses a problem will often depend on whether they trust the person to act on that information appropriately. And for people to come forward it’s important that promises of support are followed through on. Dealing with disclosure is covered in the practical guide we’ve produced for employers and line managers about managing drug and alcohol misuse, which accompanies the survey report.

The impact of COVID-19

A proactive stance is particularly important at present. Of the employees we surveyed, 27% said their alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the pandemic and the related restrictions. We found some work-related risk factors linked to increased alcohol consumption, including:

  • High workload and not attending the usual place of work.
  • Changes in caring responsibilities (we know many people are still juggling work and home commitments).
  • Managers need to be monitoring these risk factors and acting where they think the working environment or the new nature of work could be contributing to issues.

The current pause on face-to-face social events is a good time to rethink the nature of how people get rewarded, as well as expectations around official social events and client entertaining. Are these events designed in a way that actually fuels a drinking culture? Do they centre around alcohol? How much is wellbeing a consideration when planning social gatherings, such as whether there are enough soft drinks are available? And how inclusive are the plans? In our survey, 25% of HR professionals told us that some people don’t attend social events because of the expectation to drink. 

Line managers will be faced with a whole host of scenarios, including specific incidents, accidents where it’s suspected someone is under the influence, underperformance where drug or alcohol misuse is a suspected factor or general concerns about someone’s wellbeing. Training that enables them to feel capable and confident in dealing with such issues is vital.

CIPD resources on managing alcohol and drug misuse

Explore the suite of resources we’ve produced for employers, HR and line managers to help prevent and manage drug and alcohol misuse at work:

About the author

Jill Miller, Senior Policy Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

Jill is Senior Policy Adviser for Diversity and Inclusion at the CIPD. Her work focuses on the areas of gender, age and neurodiversity and she has recently led work on race inclusion, managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, and supporting employees through fertility treatment, pregnancy loss and still birth. Earlier in her career, Jill specialised in small business growth through good people management and employee wellbeing.

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