Guide to managing alcohol addiction at work
Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK. Alcohol is a causative
factor in more than 60 medical conditions, including: mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers; high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver: and depression. There are an estimated 602,391 dependent drinkers in England.
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees’ health and safety. This can represent real risks for businesses, if people are at work under the influence of alcohol, of if the misuse of alcohol affects performance at work.
If a business lets an employee continue to work whilst under the influence of alcohol, there is a risk that the employer’s duty of care to the employee may be breached. The employer may also be vicariously liable for the consequences of any actions of the employee.
In one notable case (Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd) an assault at a work Christmas party ended with the company being found jointly liable with the perpetrator.
Most businesses take steps to reduce the risks of intoxication at work and have Acceptable Behaviour Policies and clear
contractual clauses identifying that being intoxicated at work is likely to be gross misconduct.
Common warning signs
Many of the warning signs of alcohol misuse or dependency can also be signs of other conditions, such as stress. However, employees displaying these symptoms should be cause for an intervention such as a supportive conversation, at the least.
- Intermittent, unexplained or frequent absences
- Reduction in performance or productivity
- Misconduct issues at work
- Changes in behaviour
- Accidents or near-misses at work
As with many health problems, prevention is better than cure. There are easy steps that any business can take to ensure they stay on the right side of the law and support employees positively and professionally.
Key steps to managing alcohol at work
Assess and understand the risks to your business
- Signpost employees sources of help (EAPs/Charities/health professionals)
- Discourage office drinking cultures where possible
- Developing an alcohol at work policy
- Training managers in how and when to intervene
- Provide support for employees if possible
Adopt a risk-based approach
The law says employers must conduct risk assessments to protect employee health or safety. This includes assessing the risk of the
impact of alcohol or drugs at work, particularly if employees work using equipment or machinery, if the role involves driving or other risks, such as working at heights.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) suggest that “Where employees in safety-critical jobs seek help for alcohol or drug misuse, it may be necessary to transfer them to other work, at least temporarily.”
Develop a policy
Developing a policy to deal with drug and alcohol-related problems at work is a key step. It forms the foundation of how you can support any employees who may present with alcohol problems at work. If you don’t have access to HR support, seeking help from an independent HR Consultant may be very helpful.
The law says you must consult employees on health and safety matters, so you should collect and consider your employee’s views if you create an alcohol at work policy at work for the first time.
Most professionals agree that an effective policy should aim to help any employee who tells you they have an alcohol problem, rather than taking a path to dismissal straight away.
Alcohol and the Equality Act
Secondary legislation which supplements the Equality Act 2010 says “addiction to alcohol, nicotine or any other substance is to be
treated as not amounting to an impairment [disability] for the purposes of the Act”.
That means that there is no obligation on employers to consider reasonable adjustments, if they are considering taking the capability pathway.
However, many employers choose to seek independent professional medical advice, usually from occupational health professionals, to explore ways of supporting employees who may be dependent on alcohol.
Screening for alcohol at work
Some employers test for the presence at alcohol at work. It can be a complicated area, so seeking independent professional
advice is recommended. It is important to consider that:
- Testing for the presence of alcohol does not solve the problems caused by alcohol misuse at work
- The testing process must be robust and testing devices must be accurate
- Employees must consent to the testing
- Refusal to take a test could trigger a disciplinary process
- Managing employee health data arising from testing has notable risks
Training and awareness
It may be worth considering covering any alcohol misuse policy in induction processes for all new employees. Training managers can also be hugely helpful, to help them:
- Know the company’s rules
- Identify when and how to intervene if they are concerned about a colleague
- Know where to go to get help for the employee
Most treatment options are focussed on talking therapies, although drugs are often also used to try to help treat the problem. Disulfiram was originally used to treat parasitic infections, but doctors discovered that people who were taking it could not tolerate alcohol whilst being treated. Similarly, Naltrexone reduces cravings and can make withdrawal easier to manage.
Trials are underway to see if new drugs being used to treat obesity may also help in the treatment of alcohol addition too.
Although some private addiction services are helpful, treatment is nearly always co-ordinated by highly experienced NHS teams. Local teams can be contacted directly via the NHS website.
Supporting employees at work
Alcohol dependence is a recognised medical problem. Anyone who tells you they are struggling with alcohol has the same rights to
confidentiality as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition. Discretion is incredibly important.
Encouraging employees to seek help from their GP or a specialist drug or alcohol agency, or referring them occupational health should be considered.
Allowing time off to get expert help is often much cheaper than recruiting and training a replacement for the employee.
Deciding whether alcohol misuse is treated as a disciplinary issue or a health concern before you encounter the problem is often very sensible.
Although the Equality Act excludes alcohol addiction, dismissing someone because of alcohol misuse, without trying to help them, is not without risks. An employment tribunal could still find the employee was dismissed unfairly.
If the employee works with machinery or other risks, you should consider temporarily moving them to another role.
The CIPD recommends preventing drug and alcohol misuse forms a key part of any wellbeing programme, to ensure disciplinary action is coupled with support and to help employees get the help they need.
Employees need to be made aware of what support is available to them, should they need it, including signposting to external professional sources of help.