Alcohol and Drug Misuse at Work

Posted in : Back to Basics on 22 May 2018
The Employment Team at A&L Goodbody
A&L Goodbody
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Alcohol and drug misuse in the workplace is a sensitive and complex issue which many employers struggle to confront. While recent reports suggest that drinking cultures across both private and public sectors are stronger than ever, with an increasingly high proportion of workers drinking above recommended guidelines, many companies feel ill-equipped to address the problem.

In a brand new video series in partnership with A&L Goodbody, Jenny Moore, Solicitor in the Employment & Incentives team, discusses the damaging effect alcohol and drug misuse can have on a business, for example, on absenteeism, productivity, morale and reputation.

Jenny highlights the need for comprehensive drug and alcohol misuse policies, outlining an employer’s obligations under Health and Safety legislation. It is important for management to be educated on how to recognise and deal with substance use issues and staff who have an alcohol or drug related problem are encouraged to seek help in confidence at an early stage.


Effects of Alcohol and Drug Misuse

Alcohol and drug misuse is a major factor behind absenteeism, with some reports suggesting that over 14 million sick days occur in the UK alone from alcohol and drug-related issues.

Indeed, 60% of employers experience problems in the workplace related to drinking. This has a damaging effect on productivity, morale and health of an employee. The effects of alcohol and drug misuse are also likely to be detrimental to the business reputation and image, and its ability to deliver high-quality services.

However, the fact that some people misuse substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs, or that those people misuse prescription drugs is not new. It is true that the use and abuse of substances may affect the workplace just as the working environment and culture may affect how or why a person uses or misuses substances.

Note that substance use is often thought of as an addiction or dependence, but just can be anywhere on the spectrum or scale from recreational to frequent, to problematic. As a result, there are varying impacts on lives and work.

Health and Safety 

Many aspects of the workplace require alertness and accurate and quick reflexes. An impairment of these qualities can cause incidents and interference with the accuracy and the efficiency of work. The employer has a general duty under The Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to ensure, as far as reasonably practical, the health, safety, and wellness of its employees.

To knowingly allow an employee to work under the influence of excess alcohol or intoxicating substance places the employee or others at risk, and the employer liable to prosecution. Similarly, employees have a duty to take reasonable care of themselves and other persons who could be affected by their act or omissions at work.

The business will also have a responsibility under The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to ensure suitable and sufficient assessments of risks. The regulations also place the duty on employers to undertake specific risk assessments for vulnerable persons in the workplace.

Substance Misuse Policy

Work can be an important place to address substance use issues. Employers should design a policy which outlines what is an acceptable code of behaviour and what is not. By establishing and promoting a policy such as this, employers can help their staff directly and provide referrals to specialist services such as occupational health as appropriate.

A substance misuse policy should increase awareness of the effects of alcohol and drug misuse and its likely symptoms, and to ensure that all staff are aware of the responsibilities regarding alcohol and drug misuse and related problems.

Staff who have an alcohol or drug related problem are encouraged to seek help in confidence, and at an early stage. And staff who have an alcohol or drug related problem affecting their work are dealt with sympathetically, fairly, and consistently.

An employee must understand that they're expected to arrive fit to carry out their job and to be able to perform their duties safely without any limitations due to the use or effects of alcohol or drugs. They must comply with drink-driving laws and drug-driving laws at all times. They must be aware that if they're prescribed medication they must seek advice from their GP or pharmacist about the possible effect on their ability to carry out their job, and whether their duty should be modified. The business must then carry out an assessment to whether the employee should be temporarily assigned to another role.

In addition, managers and supervisors should be educated on how to recognise and deal with substance use issues and employees should be offered educational programmes. Of course, it is not the role of a supervisor or an employer to diagnose a possible substance use or dependency problem. Their role is to identify if an employee is impaired and to take the appropriate steps in accordance with the organization's policy. This could be the most crucial part of managing drug misuse at the work as managers will need to be clear about the business rules, about drug misuse, and alcohol misuse.

Local drug or health and safety services may be able to help train managers to recognise the signs of misuse and how to handle the situation. In relation to drug screening or testing, this is an extremely sensitive issue because of the many employment implications involved. Securing the agreement of the workforce to the principle of screening is essential, except in some cases of pre-employment testing, partly because of the practical and legal issues involved.

More organisations, particularly those in safety-sensitive industries, are using screening and testing as a way of controlling alcohol and drug problems. There may be a case for considering the introduction of screening in your workforce, particularly in certain critical jobs. For example, staff who have responsibility for making safety-critical decisions such as drivers, pilots, and some machinery operations in which impairment to drugs could have disastrous effects for employees, colleagues, members of the public, and the environment.

Screening is only likely to be acceptable if it can be seen to be part of an organisation's occupational health or substance misuse policy and is clearly designed to prevent risks to the misuser and others. Laboratories that are accredited by the UK's Accreditation Service will have satisfied assessors that they will provide a service that meets all testing criteria.

Screening by itself will never be a complete answer to problems caused by drugs misuse and its results must always be supplemented by a professional assessment of the employee. Prevention is just as important and thus the content of your substance misuse policy in that regard is key.

One final point, the substance misuse policy should not intend to apply to one-off incidents or offences caused by an alcohol or drug misuse at or outside the work, where there is no evidence of an ongoing problem which may damage the business reputation and which is likely to be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure. The employer should, therefore, make it clear within their substance misuse policy that nothing within their rules prevent the business from taking action under the disciplinary policy at any time where the circumstances warrant such.

In summary, Northern Ireland employers should ensure that they have comprehensive drug and alcohol misuse policies, setting the parameters of their tolerance of consumption, and establishing definitions of illegal substances. If testing is to be used, this should be explained in the policy, and the employer will need to ensure that it complies with obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998, or the General Data Protection Regulations as they apply in respect to processing and keeping sensitive personal data.


This article is correct at 22/05/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

The Employment Team at A&L Goodbody
A&L Goodbody

The main content of this article was provided by The Employment Team at A&L Goodbody. Contact telephone number is +44 28 9072 7402 or email

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