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Employers have a legal duty to protect employees’ health, safety and welfare. Understanding the signs of drug and alcohol misuse (or abuse) will help you to manage health and safety risk in your workplace. Sometimes addiction or misuse issues present as performance issues – only when the situation moves towards the possibility of dismissal, will the person admit they have an alcohol or drugs problem. 

What the issues are and what to look out for

repeated patterns of depression, or fatigue from sleeplessness, which last two to three days • erratic performance • unusual irritability or aggression • overconfidence • inappropriate behaviour • sudden mood changes from extreme happiness to severe depression • reduced response times • a tendency to become confused • reduced productivity • absenteeism • poor time-keeping • lack of discipline • deterioration in relationships with colleagues, customers or management • dishonesty and theft • financial irregularities.

Providing support and taking disciplinary action are the two main processes for dealing with substance abuse within the workplace. When handling a single situation it can be necessary to move between these two courses of action, depending on the impact the employees substance use is having on the business.

If your employee was a previously good worker, you may want to offer support as a starting point.  A disciplinary approach would be appropriate in instances of serious drunkenness at work or an employee taking /dealing drugs on the premises, or serious breaches of Health and Safety regulations. Where disciplinary measures are taken, they need to be proportionate and be seen by employee to be fairly applied. It can be difficult for people to admit to themselves or others that their drug use is out of control. You can reassure them that their alcohol or drug problem will be treated as a health issue as long as they undertake and comply with treatment, and comply with workplace rules, but that any return to substance misuse will be a cause for dismissal or disciplinary action.

The main aim should be to encourage any employee with an alcohol or drug dependency problem to voluntarily seek treatment. Being confronted by the manager at work can be an effective rock bottom for some people and allow them to finally admit to the problems in their life. If information about the support available is provided as well, this can provide reassurance as long as it is made clear that the current situation is not tenable.

Finally, it’s useful to recognise that the company can only do so much. The responsibility for ensuring staff don’t come to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs ultimately lies with employees themselves.