Testing is positive
28 November 2022
Ian Gil-Rodriguez highlights the importance of workplace culture and the role of drug and alcohol testing when it comes to safety at work.
WHILE IT may be an obvious link to some, the relationship between workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing, and the safety of employees cannot be overstated.
Despite the significant strides made over recent years in attitudes to mental health, in some organisations it remains a taboo.
Within this arena, it is also important to consider the impact of impairment due to drugs (prescription or illegal) and alcohol in the workplace, an issue which has become more prevalent since the pandemic.
Mental vs physical health
A culture of openness and awareness of mental health was reported as the number one factor in making people feel safe according to independent research carried out as part of the Dräger Safety at Work Report 20221. And – importantly – 56% of respondents stated that feeling able to bring up safety fears - be they related to mental or physical health - was the main factor that helped them feel safe.
Furthermore, 53% of workers believe that mental health should be given as much focus as physical health by employers.
However, despite growing awareness around mental health in both the workplace as well as society in general, it can often still be seen as a distinctly separate issue from physical health when it comes to the topic of workplace safety.
The reality is that the mental health crisis following Covid-19, and recent increases in drug and alcohol use within society, as referenced in this Delamere report2, combined with a lack of awareness regarding the potential side-effects from common medical treatments for issues such as depression and anxiety, mean that it often has the potential to have a very real impact on people’s physical health and wellbeing at work.
The need for greater openness
In many ways the role of workplace culture, where there is an open attitude to mental health concerns, provides a cornerstone for the vital bridge between mental health and wellbeing, and physical health in the workplace.
Yet surprisingly, this year’s Dräger Safety at Work research reported that less than half (40%) of managers believed that treating mental health and physical health equally is important for safety.
Furthermore, there exists a real disparity on the topic between managers and employees as well as across the generations. 56% of employees believing that mental and physical health should be treated the same, suggesting that managers have some work to do on this issue. Additionally, younger workers feel less supported than older respondents, with nearly a third (32%) of 18-24 year olds claiming that their workplace doesn’t take mental health as seriously as physical health. Conversely, amongst the over 55s this drops to 16%. This view was particularly prevalent amongst oil and gas workers (33%) and those in renewables (30%), compared to the utilities (18%) industries.
Mental health in today’s workplace
Poor mental health is a very real issue in today’s workplace, which needs to be managed sensitively. The charity the Mental Health Foundation3reports that 13 percent of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions, while a report by Deloitte published in April 2022 reveals that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £56 billion a year.
The incidence of mental health at work
Dräger’s research indicates that stress, anxiety and other mental health issues at work are common, with 27% of all respondents reporting that they have significant experienced of this, and nearly half (49%) reporting that they have experienced mental health issues once or twice. Just 23% report never having experienced a mental health issue.
When it comes to different generations, those in the 18-24 years bracket are more likely to have experienced mental ill health with almost nine in ten people (87%) reporting this, compared with less than half (45%) in the 55+ years bracket.
Drager Safety at Work Report – Experience of stress, anxiety or mental health issues at work
It is recognised that a person who suffers from mental ill health may also increase their alcohol intake or use recreational drugs in an attempt to self-medicate, or indeed they may take the step of seeking prescription drugs to support their mental wellbeing. It may be obvious that if someone is operating safety critical machinery, they should be regularly tested but, for example, driving a colleague to a meeting also has a risk factor.
The impact of Covid
A 2022 report by Delamere4 on drug and alcohol use suggests that post-Covid drink and drug usage, particularly drinking is becoming normalised behaviour. During the pandemic and beyond, the report revealed that many individuals use drink and alcohol to alleviate stress, whether from the pressures endured during Covid or from the burden of the current cost of living crisis. More than half of the respondents (56%) stated that alcohol in particular helps them to relax, while an alarming fifth (21%), said that it helped to diminish feelings of stress, whilst acknowledging that this led to a vicious circle of alcohol abuse, often leading to increased anxiety.
It is also evident that the increase prescription of legal drugs, which in part may be attributed to treatment of mental health and general wellbeing, is also part of the wider increase in drug and alcohol consumption. And while it can be seen as positive that there is starting to be an acceptance and awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace, alongside physical health, there are, nevertheless, implications for safety at work, regardless of the motivation.
It’s important to recognise that prescription medicines, such as benzodiazepines (which treat common medical issues such as depression) can have the potential to impair the cognitive ability performance of the individual taking them, and in turn, the potential to impact safety in the workplace. Common side effects from such drugs can include drowsiness, dizziness, loss of balance, confusion or memory loss.
Clearly this type of side effect has very real and practical impact, particularly in safety critical jobs. It is therefore vital that employees are given appropriate support, and to ensure they keep taking their medication, while sensitively managing any possible risks to workplace safety.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is clear that all employers have a legal duty to protect employees’ health, safety and welfare. As part of this, having a drug and alcohol policy which tests for all substances that have the potential to impair safety is increasingly seen as an important part of fulfilling this obligation and protecting all employees.
It is therefore not surprising that more businesses are considering the implementation of a drug and alcohol testing programmes. The main benefit of this kind of programme is promoting a safer working environment for employees, this is particularly true for safety critical industries, such as those involving hazardous chemicals, heavy machinery or driving, as impairment significantly increases the risk of a workplace accident. Furthermore, it provides the employer an opportunity to offer support to employees affected by stress and anxiety, while improved education about the impact of drugs and alcohol can promote a healthier workplace.
On the other side of the equation, there is a financial cost and resource commitment. Plus, some employees may view this type of policy as an invasion of their privacy.
However, indications suggest that employees have a growing recognition of the role played by everyone within a business in keeping colleagues safe, with Dräger’s research showing that there is growing recognition of the important role of drug and alcohol testing in workplace safety. More than four in five (83%) respondents stated that they would be happy to comply with drug and alcohol testing at work to ensure the safety of the workforce as a whole, and a perhaps surprisingly, 70% reporting that they would be willing to be tested in their own home when working remotely.
The survey findings reflect Draeger Safety UK’s own experience of working with customers, indicating that there is a growing recognition that screening is part of a company’s comprehensive health and safety policy.
OdiliaClark, a specialist impairment risk management and wellbeing company, whose services include independent drug and alcohol testing services to help businesses maintain a safe working environment, say that their experience of working with UK businesses backs up the research findings.
The company's managing director David Whiffin says, “In the main, employees see testing as a positive activity. They understand that testing is there as a safety net to support the many, not penalise the few.
“It’s important that whatever the case for introducing a screening programme, the policy itself is fair and consistent, the procedures and process used are in line with current guidelines and best practice, and that the equipment and subsequent analysis are high-quality and accurate. The benefits of a good policy and programme should complement the overall approach to health and safety in the workplace and should be deployed in a non-punitive manner.”
In conclusion, the research carried out for the Dräger Safety at Work report suggests that workforce culture needs to further evolve to adapt to the post-Covid workplace. The pandemic has undoubtedly been a catalyst for change in many aspects of workplace safety but when it comes to workplace culture, more forward thinking companies are recognising the central role of mental health in driving corporate policies to engender an open and safe working environment which will ultimately drive employee motivation and company productivity.
Ian Gil-Rodriguez is marketing manager – impairment at Draeger Safety UK. For more information, visit www.draeger.com