· News

Drug testing at work: be proactive and supportive

Reduced productivity and absenteeism due to drug and alcohol misuse are costing the UK economy £1.5 billion. According to 13 years’ worth of test data collected by European drug and alcohol testing provider, Concateno, alcohol and drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, are a common threat to the workplace and HR managers must do more to ensure this growing problem is tackled.


Over the past five years, there has been an increase in workplace drug and alcohol testing. This rise follows a number of high-profile cases, which have resulted in negative media attention. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 is another contributing factor prompting employers to undertake testing.

In response to such concerns, many companies have robust substance-testing policies in force designed to address the question of workplace drug and alcohol testing. However, simply writing a policy is not a quick-fix solution. It is essential to continually refresh testing programmes to keep them as up-to-date as possible, as social attitudes towards drugs change and new drugs such as so-called 'legal highs' come onto the scene.

Concateno supports a range of businesses within the construction, maritime, transport and public sectors on workplace testing. For some companies, such as those within the construction sector, an effective policy and testing programme is vital to manage a safety-critical workplace, while for others, it is a way to ensure both a safe and healthy working environment. Some companies undertake testing as part of all accident investigations as a matter of course and this demonstrates good practice on the part of the organisation.

The danger with any drug and alcohol policy is that the details and general principles can be ignored. Employees may become complacent, and think that they will get away with excessive consumption 'just this once'. Employees who get caught out in this way might argue that they have not been reminded of the existence of the policy for some years - which will not play well in an employment tribunal.

Inevitably, new managers get employed and perhaps miss out on the necessary training on drug/alcohol awareness and how to apply the policy. Many of the people involved in the original policy development may have left the company, taking their knowledge and understanding of the principles underlying the policy with them. Their successors may look at the policy and make changes through lack of understanding, resulting in subtle changes of emphasis that can become quite significant. This can make the policy less effective in some areas, and over-zealous in others.

For all these reasons, a regular and thorough review of the policy is essential to keep it fresh and up-to-date, looking at the actions associated with the policy, not just the words. Crucially, the policy may also need to pick up on loopholes that are being exploited.

Within the written policy, there are other changes that may need to be made. Terminology that was once clear may need amending to prevent ambiguity that can be exploited by defence lawyers in tribunals. 'Legal highs', for example, put a new perspective on associating the word legal with drugs - many policies use 'legal drugs' as a collective expression for medication on prescription. Developments in testing methods mean that the initial screening results may now be available at the time of the test. This puts greater emphasis on making sure the process is called drug testing, not drug screening. This is to avoid misinterpretation of the phrase 'positive screen result'.

Finally, the UK's consumption of drugs and alcohol continually shifts. There is a risk that the publicity given to the 'legal highs', for example, will tempt people to think these are reasonable and legitimate ways to use drugs. Meanwhile, some legal highs may have since become illegal, such as mephedrone. The internet provides vibrant and sometimes entertaining, but not always accurate, information about drugs and drug-testing. Employers need to counter this by providing the facts about drugs, alcohol and the workplace from a reliable source and ensuring workplace policies deal with these changing social attitudes to all substances.

Moreover, HR managers must go one step further to take away the stigma attached to a testing programme, while also educating staff and providing them with support, if needed.

Managers, supervisors and employee representatives, along with additional staff members who have the responsibility for the implementation of the policy, particularly the testing elements, must thoroughly understand the purpose of testing to ensure they have confidence in the process. This should then be supplemented with general employee information about alcohol and drugs via booklets, posters and health promotion weeks linked to national events such as National No Smoking Day, which can include information about smoking cannabis.

The introduction of an employee assistance programme also strengthens the commitment to a robust testing programme by ensuring substance misuse is dealt with in the most effective way. The confidential service provides online advice with 7x24 phone assistance, offering staff help on a range of issues such as financial concerns, bereavement and family problems, which may all contribute to drug and alcohol misuse. It aims to answer questions immediately, or refer enquirers to the most appropriate advisor, counsellor or source of information.

By implementing a proactive approach, companies let employees know that drug and alcohol misuse is taken seriously and that there are the support measures in place, should they need them.

John Wilson is workplace account manager at Concateno