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How to manage drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace

During difficult social and economic times, alcohol and drug intake often increases. This is corroborated by Drinkaware’s recent finding that 24% of people were drinking more than usual due to lockdown. In reality, the percentage may be substantially higher as many will not admit to this.

An employee’s alcohol or substance abuse can damage an employer’s business in many ways, including:

  • impairing the employee’s work performance and attendance;
  • potential health and safety risks for the employee and their colleagues in the workplace; and
  • potential reputational damage to the employer.

Substance abuse is, of course, also a well-being concern, which employers must be ready to assist with.

Health & Safety

Employers have a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of employees in the workplace and must control health and safety risks as far as possible.

If an employee is under the influence at work, this may pose serious health and safety risks both for the employee and their colleagues. This risk may be increased depending on the nature of the workplace (e.g. in a factory or workshop) and the employee’s role, (e.g. if operating machinery or vehicles).

Substance misuse is, therefore, a serious issue which employers must be ready to deal with by having appropriate policies and procedures in place.

These must be clearly communicated to employees, readily available (e.g. in the Employee Handbook or on the intranet) and consistently followed.

Employees and line managers must also be trained on these (see below).

Substance Abuse Policies

Policies should have two main elements:

  1. Procedural and disciplinary elements, including:
  • how an employer will deal with substance misuse;
  • when testing may take place;
  • self-referral by the employee or referral by an employee’s manager (e.g. after identifying poor work performance, attendance or health which may be due to an alcohol or drug-related problem); and
  • potential disciplinary action.
  1. Employees’ wellbeing, and the support and assistance the employer will provide.  Employees should be made aware of:
  • whom within their organisation they should contact for internal support or for an external referral;
  • the external support mechanisms provided by the employer, such as an Employee Assistance Programme or Occupational Health service; and
  • mental health and substance abuse support which is more widely available.

Testing for alcohol and/or drugs  

In organisations where employees carry out safety-critical roles, for example, testing will be necessary and justified. In other organisations, testing may only be reasonable following any incident or reasonable suspicion that alcohol and/or drugs have been abused.

In all cases, the Substance Abuse Policy and/or employment contract should set out when and how testing may take place. Although employers will still require the consent of an individual to be tested, an unreasonable refusal could lead to disciplinary action.


Employers should provide training to all staff on:

  • their internal Substance Abuse Policy;
  • how to recognise the symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse in themselves and/or their peers and direct reports; and
  • what to do if they spot those symptoms, including the internal and external support available.

Training is an effective way of raising employees’ and managers’ awareness of how to recognise and manage alcohol and drug problems and situations.

It is also a preventative measure and reminds employees that they are supported by their employer.  

What do you need to be doing now?

  1. Put in place a clear Substance Abuse policy and procedure, if you don’t already have one.
  2. Clearly communicate this policy to all employees (e.g. on induction and at regular intervals thereafter) and ensure that it is readily (and privately) accessible.
  3. Train employees and line managers on the policy, how to recognise drug and alcohol problems and the internal and external support available.
  4. Ensure that you have a designated, internal contact whom employees and managers can speak to, confidentially, about any alcohol and drug-related problems or concerns. This person should be given enhanced training on such issues.
  5. Where possible, put in place external support mechanisms, such as an Employee Assistance Programme.

If this is not affordable, employers identify and signpost to employees some of the free support and resources available, e.g.:

For more information please contact Sarah on sarah.lee@bpe.co.uk or another a member of the BPE Employment team.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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