Substance Abuse and Work

An area where employers and managers feel out of there comfort zone is when faced with an employee who is under the influence of a substance. It is reported that around 3 percent of the workforce attend the workplace under the influence. There has been a renewed and energised enthusiasm for a collective social and corporate responsibility around assisting those experiencing substance abuse issues.

What was once perceived as a straightforward misconduct issue is now being recognised as a wider issue including those have addiction issues which could potentially be a disability.

Substance abuse can have a massive impact not only on the individual involved on matters such as their own performance and personal health but also affect those in close contact with them. Putting aside the commercial losses that are incurred due to poor performance and absenteeism there are many nuances to dealing with staff that are under the influence that often get overlooked such as the mental health and personal welfare of the individual.

Any suspicions of substance abuse should be approached carefully and non-accusatory until a full picture is gathered. A substance abuse problem will occur more than on an ad-hoc occasion and the full context of any given situation should be considered.

Common signs that could sign-post you to a potential substance abuse problem include:

Has there been a change whether gradual or fast in work performance and efficiency. Although this is not always the case as many substance users are able to maintain performance or hide any inefficiency for some time it is a possible indicator when taking into consideration other factors. Other signs can include lateness, sleeping on the job, lacklustre performance, and general decrease in output.

There physical appearance may change or decline along with personal hygiene. Although, employers should tread carefully as a change in appearance can be a sign post other common issues such as domestic abuse and mental health decline.

Speech and Smell – the most often and obvious indicator of intoxication is when a person exhibits slurred speech or acting incoherent. Other examples could be a lack of focus, excessive talking, long pauses. Obviously other signs in combination could be a smell of alcohol or even alcohol on the person themselves.

They may display unusual personality changes that are seemingly out of character or exacerbations of their usual selves. These changes could be displayed differently depending on the person but could include mood swings, violence, and unpredictable conduct.

What is critical is that employers/managers act compassionately in the first instance particularly if the employee has displayed a sudden change which could indicate a life event or historical issue that has caused the sudden dependency on substance use. Each person’s story is unique and different and should be approached with this in mind. The biggest mistake employers could make is to prejudge any given situation until a full set of facts have been obtained. Mitigating circumstances should always be a priority when dealing with an issue of substance abuse.

A focus away from misconduct to a support approach should be the initial first step however there are situations that must also be dealt with as a conduct issue if a person’s conduct puts themselves or others at risk.  It should be seen as an extension of a medical issue and treated with the same level of confidentiality.

An employer when concerned should approach the situation with a view to what type of help and support can be offered once the full facts are established. Ultimately any treatment path is down to the employee themselves but knowing they have support can immensely help someone’s recovery and general well-being. An employer can encourage the employee to seek medical support or signpost to clinics and rehab centres.

Treating substance abuse as misconduct will also be relevant in certain circumstance for example if the employee commits an act of violence or for example, drives under the influence putting themselves and others in the vehicle and on the roads at risk. There are some circumstances where an employer will need to take a firm and even zero tolerance approach but what is important is that all factors are taken into consideration.

When disciplining an employee for substance abuse a wider consideration to penalties should be considered including, out- reach programmes, alternative deployment, and demotion instead of dismissal (which is often the go too outcome).

Employers should ensure that they have in place a substance misuse policy outlining what steps to take for those struggling with substances and those who suspect an individual is under the influence. It should sign post the reader to resources or a person who can provide a wide range of solutions based on the individual circumstances of the matter.

It is advisable to have a policy in place that covers how you will deal with substance abuse and your expectations of employees. We can assist you in preparing and implementing so please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss in more detail.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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