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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

One for the road... A new European-wide service has been launched to help managers of small businesses deal with employees whose drink or drug intake is affecting their work

July 2011

The problems associated with alcohol and drug use are felt in many different settings including the workplace. In the context of work, not only do alcohol and drugs damage health but they can also cost employers through absenteeism, reduced productivity and, potentially, more accidents.

Employers who experience difficulties with behaviour related to alcohol or drug use are usually dealing not with an alcoholic or a junkie but a typical employee with an incapacity or misconduct issue. The astute manager will recognise this and act appropriately. But many managers feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped to confront the problem and defer taking action until it becomes acute or too late.

Employers need to consider when it becomes a performance or safety issue. Dealing with staff whose work performance is adversely affected by their use of alcohol and drugs, however, can be challenging and difficult.

Legal position

In the UK, employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If an employer knowingly allows an employee under the influence of drugs or excess alcohol to continue working and this places the employee or others at risk, they could be prosecuted.(1)

Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, drivers of road vehicles must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while driving, attempting to drive or when they are in charge of a vehicle. The Transport and Works Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence for certain workers to be unfit through drink and/or drugs while working on railways, tramways and other guided transport systems.

Employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do.

Screening and testing

Think very carefully about what you want screening to do, and what you will do with the information it generates. Screening by itself will never be the complete answer to problems caused by drug or alcohol misuse. Prevention is just as important.

Some employers have adopted screening as part of their drugs and alcohol policy - particularly in 'safety-sensitive' industries - as a way of controlling drug and alcohol problems. It can be used:

Screening is a sensitive issue. It is essential to secure agreement of the workforce because of the practical and legal issues. Screening is only likely to be acceptable if it is part of a company's occupational health policy and is designed to prevent risks to others.

Agreement to the principle of screening must be incorporated in each employee's contract of employment. Existing staff are under no legal obligation to agree to changes in their terms and conditions of service. If an employer tried to force a test on an unwilling employee, the employee could resign and claim 'constructive dismissal'.

In addition, the written consent of the individual must be obtained for each test.

Help at hand

The Leonardo LifeLong Learning Programme (2) is funding a project - 'Maximising Employee Performance by Minimising the Impact of Substances' - to develop a training resource (web-based and face-to-face) to equip managers with the skills, knowledge and understanding to enable them to deal proactively and reactively with the issue of substances and their impact on work and employment.

Seven partners from across the EU: a research agency (Ireland), a university (Italy), an institute of occupational health medicine (Poland), a web design/IT company (Greece) and three small consultancies (Hungary, the Netherlands and UK) are collaborating to deliver the project which is led by work2health ltd based in Cardiff.

A needs analysis undertaken across the partnership countries, including both qualitative and quantitative questions, shaped the development of the training resources.

The following were among those rated as most important:

Other topics suggested included:

Training modules

Both e-learning and face-to-face training resources are modular. The latter has options for a one or two day training course depending on the needs and preferences of participants. The course begins with a general introduction including the business case, the rationale for a proactive approach and definition of the terms used. It examines the best corporate approach to tackle alcohol and drug use; legal principles that underpin any action including health and safety law, human rights legislation and data protection; managerial knowledge, skills and competencies, which include spotting signs and symptoms, and discipline and support; testing; substances of concern and how they affect behaviour and performance; and putting theory into practice.

The e-learning is also modular. It covers the same topics as the face to face training with participants following a train of events in one of three fictitious company case studies.

Both sets of materials were field tested in each of the partner countries through the use of self-complete questionnaires and focus groups with the formal launch of the materials taking place in June 2011. The website and further information about the project including how to access the training materials is available through with a link to the European Network for Mental Health Promotion Portal which provides access to a wide range of workplace-related resources linked to the problematic use of alcohol and drugs.

The e-learning resources on the website are freely available to download and use. The face-to-face training is currently free until September 2011. Future charging depends on demand. Work2health recommends that trainers are trained before using the materials because there are some skills and techniques, which are essential if the course is to be a success.

  2. Leonardo is part of the European Commission's Lifelong Learning Programme. It supports the development of skills and training, as well as European projects to develop training materials, courses and frameworks, working with European partners -