Tackling the effects of drug use

If you read nothing else, read this …

One-in-eight UK employers now conduct random drugs tests.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) offer counselling and referral.

They can also tip the scales in employers’ favour if cases should go to court.

Another option is drug awareness training, provided by local support groups.

Article in full

The issue of drugs and alcohol is creeping up the agenda in UK workplaces. A 2003 report, Testing times, by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that one-in-eight organisations now conduct random drugs and alcohol tests, while four-out-of-five bosses would be prepared to check staff if they felt that productivity was at stake. The testing trend began life in the US, where employers have traditionally had little hesitation in telling staff how to conduct their private lives.

Trade unions, and the TUC in particular, argue that employers are just being nosy. After all, who cares what people do at the weekend as long as they are in on time on Monday? Sue Morrison, head of employment at law firm Mace & Jones, says: "It isn’t any of the employer’s business if it doesn’t impact upon staff doing their work. But the minute their performance and their contractual obligations are impaired, then it becomes the employer’s business. "It could be that they don’t turn up for work or they are coming in late.

You have health and safety issues when you have people [working] on equipment who’ve had a skinful the night before and are still over the limit." However, disciplinary action should not be an organisation’s first port of call. "The more enlightened employers are trying to go through a counselling and support route first," she adds. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are a common option because counsellors can advise and refer workers with drug and alcohol addictions.

Nevertheless, while Morrison stresses the importance of EAPs, she adds that they rarely help people with entrenched problems. "It’s more something that employers should consider for their own protection, to avoid a suggestion of unfair dismissal, or that they just jumped in and didn’t give employees the support that they needed. But in terms of happy ever after, I can’t give you any examples." Another option is drug awareness training, perhaps provided by a local government support group.

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Elizabeth Flegg is HR project manager for the Sussex Drug and Alcohol Action Team and has just written Frank at work, a guide to help employers that are dealing with drug abuse problems. "Training is one of the best ways of tackling drug use at work. Also, line managers should learn how to recognise the signs and then speak to people and guide them to drug and alcohol services. Employers can contribute to someone receiving specialised treatment – not necessarily residential, it could be a day service," she explains.

Tom Mellish, health and safety policy officer at the TUC, prefers training and counselling programmes to drug testing, although he does have reservations. "Our concerns would be that counselling is brought in as something of a panacea. It’s not just a question of farming it out, [employers] have got to look at the issues behind the problems. They need to look at ways the company can tailor hours of work, childcare issues, time off for counselling. There is [bound] to be some underlying reason, people don’t just say ‘Ooh I’m 35, I think I’ll become an alcoholic’."