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Tackling drug & alcohol misuse

23 January 2013

Businesses must evolve drug and alcohol misuse policies to continually ensure safe workplaces, says Iain Forcer Reduced productivity and absenteeism due to substance misuse ie estimated to cost the UK economy £1.5 bi

Businesses must evolve drug and alcohol misuse policies to continually ensure safe workplaces, says Iain Forcer

Reduced productivity and absenteeism due to substance misuse ie estimated to cost the UK economy £1.5 billion. According to 13 years worth of test data collected by Concateno, a European drug and alcohol testing provider, alcohol and drugs including cannabis and cocaine are a common threat to the workplace.

Many companies now have robust substance testing policies in force designed to address the issue. But, with strategies often neatly filed away, the rules can be forgotten - or worse - ignored by management and staff.

Simply writing a policy is not a quickfix solution. Businesses must continually refresh testing programmes to keep them as up-to-date as possible, most importantly as social attitudes towards drugs, such as those which provide socalled 'legal-highs', change. Moreover, managers must go one step further to educate staff and provide a support service for them, if needed.

Managers naturally want to avoid situations which can cause accidents in the workplace and it is part of the employer's duty of care to the employee to ensure a safe working environment.

But the danger with any drug and alcohol workplace policy is that the details and general principles can be ignored.

Existing employees may become complacent, and think that they may get away with excessive consumption 'just this once'. Employees who may 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.

The situation may also arise whereby new managers are employed and perhaps miss out on the necessary training on drug / alcohol awareness and how to apply the policy. Experienced managers might also start to take the policy for granted and think they can deal with issues without testing. In some cases, hard-pushed supervisors may learn to work round the policy to avoid what they perceive as 'unnecessary' testing that interferes with their work schedule.

For all these reasons a regular and thorough review of the policy is essential, 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 which 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 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'.

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 overzealous in others.

Shifting consumptions 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, or that the increased availability of cocaine will be a temptation. The internet provides vibrant and sometimes entertaining, but not always accurate, information about drugs and drug testing. Employers need to counter this by providing, from a reliable source, the facts about drugs, alcohol and the workplace and ensuring workplace policies deal with these changing social attitudes to all substances.

Employers also have the option to introduce an Employee Assistance Programme to further strengthen their commitment to a robust testing programme. Concateno for example offers a confidential service which combines online advice with seven day a week, 24-hour 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.

This holistic approach demonstrates a clear message to employees that substance misuse is not only taken seriously but employees can access support if they need it. A thorough and continually evolving strategy which is easily accessible is the only effective way the workplace will be able to tackle the issue of drug and alcohol misuse.

Iain Forcer is spokesperson for Concateno's Employee Services.