· Features

Dealing with substance misuse in the workplace

Alcohol and drug misuse is recognised as a society-wide problem but employers don’t necessarily realise the impact it’s having on their workforce and their business.

Recent statistics suggest that work stress is now the biggest factor driving people in Britain to alcohol and drugs.

Just over half of adults polled by charity MIND said they drank after work, with one in seven admitting to drinking during the day.

It may not be surprising then that sickness absence caused by alcohol misuse is costing UK businesses around £6.4 billion a year.

With around a quarter of men reporting they regularly drink more than 21 units a week and around one in six women admitting to drinking more than 14 units a week (NHS Information Centre, 2012), it's becoming a regular headache for employers.

What may be most surprising to employers is that around 1.7 million adults say they have taken illicit drugs in the last month - equivalent to around 4% of the working population. Drug-related sickness absence costs industry around £1.4 billion a year.

Therefore, the problem of substance misuse isn't a small one and can affect anyone. Yet, in many cases, employers aren't sure of the best approach to take when tackling alcohol or drug misuse among their workforce.

While the Government recognises the need for action when it comes to alcohol and drugs, there's not a clear solution to tackle the harm caused to society in general but the impact on individuals and communities continues.

In turn, there's no real guidance for employers either about the best way to deal with substance misuse in the workplace.

The reasons behind why people choose to use alcohol or drugs can be very complex. It could be recreational, down to peer pressure, experimental or by binge drinking.

Sometimes people misuse substances to cope with or mask other problems like grief, stress caused by work or home life, or illness.

It can be frustrating for employers when team members take days off here and there because of substance misuse but if it's not approached in the right way, it can lead to more long-term problems and more regular sickness absence, costing employers more time and money.

There's also legislation and health and safety responsibilities to consider when approaching alcohol and drugs-related issues in the workplace, especially if it's putting the employee or others at risk while they're in the workplace.

So, it's important that employers have appropriate policies and support in place to ensure the welfare of employees while in their care, and to keep effective team members the company has invested a lot of time and money in recruiting and training.

However, where do you start? Information is key.

It's important for management to get the facts about alcohol and drugs, so they can help their workforce understand the risks and consequences of misusing substances, allowing them to make their own informed decisions.

It's not something they can do on their own, so it's vital that they get professional advice and information from organisations, who can give the appropriate support to managers that'll help dispel some of the common myths around alcohol and drug use.

Armed with this information, managers can raise awareness of different substances, their effects, the legal and cultural context, and properly manage situations involving alcohol and drug misuse that may be affecting the workforce.

There are a number of ways to do this. One example could be to hold informal health awareness days, inviting a number of providers to give specialist advice and offer access to wider support should it be needed.

Offered in conjunction with formal training and education, it's a useful way to begin tackling substance misuse without alienating individuals who may be worried about coming forward for help.

However, it may not always be obvious to employers who could potentially be affected by substance misuse and initial conversations can be difficult to start. Situations such as these should be approached sensitively and backed up with the facts; something that professional advice could help managers prepare for.

A supportive approach is also key. It's in the manager's best interest - as well as the employee - to make sure that team members are effective and healthy, so they remain a productive member of the workforce.

Sharon Smyth (pictured), talent development manager at alcohol, drug and support services firm Swanswell