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23 November 2017

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace

Research shows that drug and alcohol abuse are ever-increasing problems in the workplace. It is no longer uncommon for an employee to alert their employer to an addiction, or for employers or the workplace at large to believe that an employee is misusing drugs or alcohol.

Drugs and alcohol abuse can have a serious impact on the day-to-day performance of employees. This can range from general problems with punctuality, lower productivity and increased sick leave, to more serious cases which can result in accidents at work.

These situations can be difficult to approach and employers should be careful in deciding how best to take action to tackle these issues.

Disciplinary or capability?

Where you become suspicious that an employee is using or dependent on drugs, extreme caution should be exercised. Evidence of drug and alcohol misuse might include behavioural issues, absenteeism or a general drop in work rate and it is important to remember that these can often be swept up in disciplinary procedures, when that is not always the most suitable option.

There is a distinction to be drawn between one-off instances, which may be dealt with as misconduct and long-term dependency, which is better dealt with as a capability issue.

Remember, employers will be expected to be aware of warning signs and should not willingly turn a blind eye when they suspect that there might be a longer term underlying problem.

Often the line between recreational abuse and a long-term dependency can be difficult to discern. If in doubt, input from a medical specialist is advised.

When you know that the employee has an addiction

When you have evidence, such as when an employee makes you aware that they suffer from addiction, the situation is clearer.

This is a capability issue, not misconduct and you should seek input from an occupational health professional immediately. Your efforts should be directed to helping your employee find treatment, in order to engineer a speedy recovery. This could also be done by referring them to specialist substance abuse counsellors or substance abuse charities.

In turn, structured support provides employers with a reliable method to monitor progress and gauge whether the employee will be capable of returning to work in a reasonable time. You can then make an informed and fair decision about whether performance management is needed, with dismissal as an option further down the line.

Is dependency a disability?

On the surface, the position is clear. Dependency, or an addiction, will only constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if it is caused by the taking of prescription drugs or another medical treatment.

In reality, the position is not so clear-cut. Nevertheless, the physical and mental impairments that drug or alcohol addiction can lead to could become a freestanding, qualifying disability. Caution is urged, as in some cases, the dependency might be the symptom of an underlying condition, which is a qualifying disability.

This is a complex area, on which further input from legal and medical professionals must be sought. If an employee is found to have a disability, it will be necessary to consider reasonable adjustments.

Conclusion

Employers should be open to providing help and support to employees with drug and alcohol issues. Context is everything and whilst one-off, or even a series of such instances might be grounds for disciplinary proceedings, longer term problems are better dealt with as capability issues. In either case, dismissal could be the end result but the process by which that decision is reached is key and extreme caution is urged.

Where employers suspect that an employee may be affected by substance misuse issues, they would be well advised to contact us for specialist advice before taking action.