Tackling addictions in the workplace

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

• Employers have a duty of care under health and safety legislation to protect the health of their employees.

• It can be difficult to recognise the signs of drug and alcohol addiction.

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• Benefits that can be used to support staff with addictions include employee assistance programmes (EAPs), other counselling services and occupational health services, so staff must be made aware these services are available.

Addiction to alcohol or drugs can be a serious problem for an employee and a clear policy is needed, says Tynan Barton

According to Statistics on alcohol: England 2011, published in May by the NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care, there were 1,057,000 alcohol-related admissions to hospital in 2009/10, a rise of 12% from 2008/09.

Not only does alcohol and drug abuse put a huge strain on GPs and the NHS, but coping with employees’ addictions in the workplace can be a challenge for employers.

Identifying problems with alcohol and drugs can be difficult, but some signs are obvious, such as the smell of alcohol on a person or colleagues reporting problems. Other clues include a drop in performance or productivity, increased sickness absence, mood swings, anxiety and depression.

Keith Gorman, programme manager at workplace health charity Health@Work, says: “Managers may suspect there is a problem with a staff member, or hear comments from other employees, but they do not often feel confident about approaching the person and raising it as an issue.”

However, employers have wide duties of care under health and safety legislation and common law, which extends to protecting the health of their workers, the colleagues of someone who might be suffering with addiction, and members of the public.

Elizabeth Graves, senior associate at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, says: “An employer would have a duty to avoid risks that could give rise to an addiction. Also, if an employee has an addiction that could affect the safety of others, the employer would have a duty to protect the health and safety of the employee’s colleagues.”

Supportive approach by employers

Employers therefore must have a health and safety policy in place for addiction in the workplace, and assess whether to take a supportive approach, or whether the risks to the health and safety of others mean it cannot allow afflicted employees to continue with their normal duties. “If an employer decides to be supportive and agrees to suspend disciplinary action while an employee is taking treatment, it needs to make sure employees are aware of that policy,” says Graves.

Gorman adds: “We recommend employers come in at the initial stages and offer support through specialist services, which could be occupational health or giving people time off to see their GP or for counselling.”

Employers can raise awareness of the help and support available through communication campaigns that try to mitigate problems before it is too late. Employees must know that their employer provides resources to support them confidentially. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and other counselling services can be used here.

Alan King, president and chief operating officer at Workplace Options, says: “Many organisations provide support to employees, at least with access to basic services. The support starts with helping them recognise, and connect them with, resources, and can go all the way to covering for inpatient treatment.”

Whatever route an employer takes in addressing addiction in the workplace, it must ensure it is focused on supporting the individual employee as well as line managers and supervisors.

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