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Substance abuse: Health and wellbeing - Fix the addiction

The estimated cost of drug and alcohol abuse to British industry is about 3 billion a year. How should HR be tackling the problem? Suzy Bashford reports.

January is traditionally the month of sobriety, of new year resolutionsand pledges to ditch unhealthy habits. But, while the festive season maynow be officially over, according to substance abuse experts, a growingnumber of your employees will be continuing to reach for the bottle orthe pill packet, as a way to cope with the pressures of their work andpersonal lives.

Georgia Foster (right) is a clinical hypnotherapist who runs the WrenClinic in the City of London to help workers suffering from alcohol anddrug addictions. And it is often employers that pay for her services.While it is usually teenagers and celebrities you hear about as havingproblems, Foster's typical alcohol-dependent client is "35 plus, earninggood money, in a great job, with a great quality of life and enjoyseating lovely food in nice restaurants". She sees lawyers, investmentbankers and insurance brokers who say drinking is part of the company'sculture. "It's not uncommon for these staff to take clients out anddrink two or three bottles of wine over lunch," says Foster. "It'salmost part of the ritual of being successful in the City. It's alifestyle that creates stress and emotional drinkers who use alcohol toswitch off, relax and cope with the increasingly insecure financialmarket."

Drug abuse - cocaine - is her particular concern, especially in thebanking sector and the media industry. "It's more of a problem thanalcohol," says Foster. "Users quickly become addicted to the quick fixit provides, unlike alcohol which takes time to take effect. It's anastier problem because staff may be ostracised if they refuse to takeit."

Drug problems are not just confined to the City. According to the Healthand Safety Commission, some 8-14 million working days are lost each yearbecause of alcohol. At least 200,000 UK workers turn up to the officewith a hangover every day. It is estimated drug and alcohol-relatedabuse costs British industry about 3 billion a year and,according to substance misuse advice company Grendonstar, a substanceuser is 3.6 times more likely to be involved in an accident at work, 10times more likely to be late and three times more likely to take a sickday.

Last October's well-publicised Chartered Institute of Personnel andDevelopment (CIPD) report revealed that 40% of employers think alcoholmisuse is the main cause of employee absence and lost productivity.Anecdotal evidence also points to it having less measurable consequences- misconduct, harassment, bullying, poor customer service,administrative errors and damaged colleague relationships.

Yet, despite all the evidence pointing to its poisoning effects,substance misuse at work is a growing problem, and 40% of employers haveno policy in place to help them manage this issue, according to theCIPD.

Edmund Tirbutt, reformed alcoholic and author of Beat the Booze (right),believes HR professionals simply do not know where to start. "These aresome of the most complicated cases HR will ever come across," he says,"but there's a lot of misinformation out there, none of which addressesthe problem."

Tirbutt believes a single policy is not the right answer. "Drink andsubstance problems are like cancers. There are hundreds of differenttypes and many different solutions. It's completely wrong to think thereis one problem and one cure. If you weren't sure whether you had astomach ulcer or cancer, you wouldn't go and ask your line manager or HRdirector for their opinion. You'd see a doctor. HR professionals shouldbe there to refer people to occupational health services as soon aspossible," he says. He urges employers to bear in mind that, whilealcohol sufferers in particular often live in denial, "nobody sets outto be a drunkard. Something has gone wrong with their life, just likesomething has gone wrong with someone who has developed a debilitatingcondition like ME."

Manufacturing company DMM Engineering has had an alcohol policy for morethan 10 years. It was originally introduced to dissuade workers frommid-week, late-night drinking sessions. "We wouldn't normally be lookingto prove anything or to take disciplinary action on a first offence,"says chairman Richard Cuthbertson. "It would run more along the lines ofa friendly chat, enquiring whether the employee concerned has a drinkproblem. But there is a huge blind spot in UK business when it comes tothese conversations and I think that's down to a certain Britishpoliteness. You want to seem caring but not like an interferingbusybody."

But, as Cuthbertson points out, just because these conversations aretricky, it does not mean they should be avoided. He's seen a definiteimprovement in behaviour now the policy is well understood and has nothad to send an employee home for breaking the guidelines in the pastthree years.

Simon Truelove, consultant for Grendonstar, manages the alcohol and drugmisuse policy for around 25 blue-chip companies. He says his main job ismaking the communication of the policy as easily understood as possible,from using briefing sessions to posters and pamphlets. "If you don'tcommunicate clearly staff won't understand or appreciate the policy andyou won't allay any concerns they have about it," he says. "You have toexplain that it's there to help them, why the company is doing it and atwhat level." All experts agree however that any policy must be 'firm andfair' and if an employee does not take the help offered, employers mustgo down the disciplinary route immediately. "You've got to make it clearthe kid gloves are off and that errant staff are going to be tackled onperformance, and if they don't improve, they'll be out the door," saysTurbitt.

In certain industries, such as the transport industry, where employeesare responsible for the safety of others, policies are essential andbreaching of contractual terms can lead to instant dismissal. However,in the past four years Truelove reports a "massive increase in thenumber of non-safety-critical organisations contacting us". He puts thisdown to the drinking and long hours culture in the UK and the increasingavailability and affordability of drugs and alcohol. "Ten years ago agram of cocaine would cost upwards of 150. Now you can get itfrom 20," he says. He predicts that the threat of corporateliability will continue to drive demand for policies too, as employersseek to show they have done everything in their power to preventaccident or injury as a result of an employee misusing substances.

But for Truelove the best business reason for implementing a policy isthat it can make employees more loyal in future and save the time andhassle of recruiting and retraining a replacement. He's seen this atfirst hand many times. Two years ago an employee working for a wholesalebusiness came forward with a heroin addiction problem. He organisedcounselling for him and after six months he was clean. "Prior to that hewas always late and took lots of sick days," says Truelove. "Now he'sthe most punctual member of staff. He's incredibly motivated. He feels afierce sense of loyalty because his employer bothered to look after himand help him get off heroin. He's 43 and he'll be an employee for lifenow. That's an incredibly positive outcome from a bit of effort over sixmonths."


Spotting the signs

- Alcohol misuse is easier to spot than drug misuse. Alarm bells shouldbe ringing if you, as a line manager, regularly smell booze on aworker's breath early in the morning. As for drugs, people's reactionswill differ. Look out for erratic behaviour.

You've spotted the signs. Now what?

- Do not ignore them

- Your first priority should be to help. Have a confidential chat anddirect the individual to services available such as an EAP or externaltherapy

- If your company does not offer any services, then you could help theindividual find treatment or consult with his or her GP

- Do not try to do any counselling yourself. You are not skilled to doit

- Do not just carry out on-the-spot tests without fully explaining theprocess, otherwise you will breed mistrust and resentment

- Do not assume staff are using substances because of personal problems.It is usually a combination of stress at work and at home. Is there along-hours culture at your company? Is there an autocratic managementsystem? Are people unhappy at work? It is likely that the problem ispartly to do with work, with most people today working in anincreasingly insecure job environment which requires long hours and arobust management style

Source: Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychologyand health, Lancaster University


This exclusive Kent-based centre tackles drug and alcohol addiction andonly opened last month. Typical treatment is a six-week programme ofcognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy and a year of weeklysessions. According to clinical director David Bremner (right), thecentre is deliberately designed to offer visitors a "very comfortable,fluffy pillow" approach to detoxification. In fact the style is more asa luxury boutique hotel, complete with personal trainers, gyms andcomplementary therapies.

"Most clients are high earners in full-time work, under 50, withemployers mostly footing the 32,500-a-year bill," he says."Self-employed businessmen and senior management are common clientsbecause," he adds,"they can get away with having an addiction forlonger."

In its short life, Winthrop Hall's experience is that the moreunderstanding and supportive the employer is the better the chance ofthe patient's recovery.

One of Bremner's clients is a 28 year-old lawyer whose drug addictionwas discovered by his boss after he had noticed him taking a largeamount of tablets every day. His boss forced him into treatment underthreat of losing his job. Although the lawyer was initially reluctant,he has found that coming to the clinic has been the best thing he's everdone.

"His boss is clearly very forward-thinking," says Bremner. "He's made abig investment in training my client. In doing this he could secure hisloyalty for the next 20 years. My client will feel more loyalty to thefirm than the average employee."

However, Bremner believes many UK companies ignore addiction problemsbecause they're difficult to deal with. Worse still, the UK mediaglamorises drug use. "Take the case of a model being sacked for takingdrugs. You don't see that model being supported tackling that addiction,do you? We need to get the message across that these situations can behandled constructively and also that careers can be over because ofaddiction," says Bremner.


If alcohol or substance misuse is affecting someone's conduct orcapability it is potentially a reason for fair dismissal, but theemployer must be careful. As with any dismissal case HR must proceedwith warnings, meeting with the individual and conducting reviews beforean outright dismissal.

1. When drafting the policy you should ensure it clearly sets out whatstaff are and are not allowed to do. Spell out that breaking the rulesmay be a disciplinary matter, but that the company will investigate itthoroughly before taking any action.

2. Whether an alcohol policy can extend to off-site behaviour is still agrey area. There is some case law that supports enforcing this line, butit should not be done without referring to your company lawyer.

3. Remember, dealing drugs and alcohol is completely different frombeing hooked on them. An employer can commit an offence if they allow anemployee to have drugs on the premises. As such, this is grounds forinstant dismissal. However, even here the employer does not have carteblanche to get the police involved because technically the employer mustconduct a full investigation before this stage.

4. If people are taking drugs and alcohol because they're stressed orit's part of the culture, employers need to look at managing that in theworkplace too. That's not a legal obligation but it's good practiceunder duty-of-care obligations.

Source: Claire Reddington, employment law solicitor, Davis BlankFurniss


This group, with centres in Sheffield, North Yorkshire and the WestMidlands, deals exclusively with alcoholism and charges around 1,500 per week with a series of free follow-up workshops. It statesclearly that the experience is not in any way like staying at a spahotel. Clients relearn skills that have probably been lost throughdrinking, such as sticking to a daily schedule and taking responsibilityfor daily chores.

All the therapists and staff are either in recovery themselves or havefirst-hand experience of drugs through a close family member. Patientsare encouraged to become part of a self-help organisation such as AAafter treatment. If this is adhered to, it reports a 90% success rate.Unlike Winthrop Hall, there is no typical client socio-demographic: thepatients are men and women aged between 18 and 80 and have includedpilots, vicars, housewives, students, journalists, doctors, financialdirectors and top business executives.