How should intoxicants in the workplace and remote working be dealt with?

Posted in : Seamus Says - Employment Law Discussion on 5 March 2021
Seamus McGranaghan
O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors
Issues covered: Intoxicants in the workplace; Remote working

In relation to intoxicants in the workplace and people working remotely, how should it be dealt with?

Particularly as the person we have a suspicion of, I think it says, is not face-to-face with the employer. Or sorry, that's wrong. Particularly as the person with the suspicion. So there's a manager who suspects that one of the employees has a drinking problem, but they're not face-to-face. They're not in the workplace. They're dealing with them remotely. So what light can you shed on that, Seamus?

Seamus: Well, I think from my experience over the past number of weeks, I think that there's a reality there that we're all now struggling with this lockdown, and whether that's on a personal basis or whether it was on a workplace basis, I have noticed within instructions that I'm receiving from my clients that there is definitely an unsettlement with staff at the minute, and I've noticed that's there have been an increase in the number of grievances, which is surprising whenever people are working from home and are not sort of in the office to bicker and fight. But there are issues arising among staff that are down to the fact that people are working from home, there's a lack of contact. People are feeling isolated, and it's creating difficulties, and I'm sure that's a shared experience with the listeners.

But when you put that in context of somebody within your staff who may be does have addiction issues or suffers from maybe anxiety or difficulties in and around their mental health already, and you add on these additional matters, you could really . . . I mean, I think it's worthwhile saying that it's important that you're looking after the welfare of staff as best that you can at the minute. But where there's somebody that is on your radar that maybe does have any kind of addiction issues or problems, certainly, I think keeping in touch is important, and I think that maintaining contact and checking in. There may be things that will flag up.

I mean, I know that that standard one where you'd be concerned that somebody is maybe drinking too much or where there's alcohol involved, and it's making the approach and really to see if there is any of the signs there . . . if there's any of the signs, the smell of alcohol, things like that. But usually, where you'll notice it will also be in a whether it be a decrease in their productivity, whether it will be a decline in their standard of work. I think that there's probably an element for all of us on that working from home in that we're not in the office, we're maybe just not as productive or good as we would be if we were in our normal circumstances.

But where there's somebody suffering maybe from an addiction that you're aware of, or even when you're not aware of and you think that it's very unusual for productivity levels to drop so badly for a certain member of staff, it could be a red flag that there's something more going on here. And so I think where there is that suspicion, it's very difficult to deal with it when there's no tangibility when there's no face-to-face meetings. But I think that you should take the steps to investigate to see what the circumstances are. And that may be trying to arrange video calls or telephone calls with the individual.

Another one I think that comes up quite a bit is this aspect of people keeping their camera off during meetings, and we talked about that at our last webinar about whether that was a reasonable request to ask somebody to put their camera on because that can give an indication of the welfare of the person as well whenever you see them on the video link. But where there's a consistency to lateness to meetings, not turning up for meetings, even though they're remote, keeping the camera off, all those sorts of indications, a downturn in their work, and maybe not adhering to their targets or their time frames, all of those are indications there might be a problem here. So, I mean, I think given the extraordinary circumstances that we're in, it's probably not the position in the first instance to jump in with two feet and look for disciplinary action.

I think that given the circumstances of where we're at, it maybe is more looking at the lighter touches initially, checking in, and trying to be understanding. And If it's obvious it's apparent that there are specific issues that are arising, then I think that you may be referring the employee to maybe occupational health or counselling services or making them aware of the types of services that are available for them to use and trying to be as supportive. Where there's chronic problems and difficulties arising, you may need to take an alternative step in relation to it. But look, I think it's back to the point we're all generally struggling and for somebody with a specific problem, this is going to be a very difficult time for them.

Scott: It's hard for employers because you can't go to the house and say, "Here, take a breath test." Or we're going to do a blood test or anything for you. You can't do the random drink and drug testing that you might do in certain workplaces. I should add for any of the listeners that our cameras are not on because we have some poor Wi-Fi when we put the cameras on, and it's a genuine case. Certainly, in my case. Seamus's Wi-Fi might be a bit stronger than mine in in County Armagh but here that I am, but that is a tell-tale sign. We've discussed it before.

I think when you move into those, look, we need to have these one-to-one discussions. If you're having them regularly with subordinates or managers, then they should notice those changes over time and they should insist that those ones are on-screen. There will be some way, whether it's WhatsApp or Teams or whatever, Zoom, that you'll be able to get Wi-Fi strong enough at times to have those meetings if people are working from home. And of course, if there working presumably, it's reasonable to ask them to engage by having cameras on. It's difficult at the moment where nowhere else is open to set up even a socially distanced meeting, but, I mean, that might presumably end up being the question. But your overall advice is don't assume somebody has an alcohol problem. Deal with the lessening of performance really. Is that the case, Seamus, yeah?

Seamus: Yeah, that's it. And look, just briefly, I specifically had a client that was having a really difficult time with a manager in their office, a superb employee, and they were aware that there was some issues at home, and I think there was some maybe matrimonial issues ongoing and may be issues with the children. But the employer was as supportive as they could have been, but they asked to meet. They weren't receiving sick lines. And then they were receiving sick lines, but they appeared to have been doctored and all sorts of issues arising. And ultimately, had to move through a disciplinary process just because they couldn't get engagement. And they'd taken steps even to contact the next of kin line in relation to this employee's mother, and they spoke to the mother and it was apparent that there were issues ongoing, but just the family weren't prepared to talk about.

And having to push in that direction, and with bearing in mind the difficulties that are ongoing and at the minute, but just trying to manage those issues is at the minute, is very difficult. But hopefully within the next couple of weeks, if we come out of maybe the end of March after Easter, there might be some ability to maybe set up external meetings and be able to meet outside even or the likes of meeting for a coffee in a third-party place instead. So, hopefully, we're coming out of that and moving in the right direction.


This article is correct at 05/03/2021

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Seamus McGranaghan
O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors

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