Do we need to talk about addiction in the workplace?

The statistics on drug and alcohol abuse and addiction in the UK are frightening. There has been a rise in drug users.

In 2020 at least 10% of adults aged 16 – 59years have reported using illicit drugs (class A, B or C) or medications not prescribed for their personal use at least a few times, of that group 2.1% (approximately 712 000 people) are frequent drug users, with the age group 16 -24yr olds being twice as high at 4.3%. (ONS)

drug users office

Whilst stats are sometimes seen as just numbers on a screen or in a report, if you take the age group of 16 – 59year olds as the standard age of the UK workforce and apportion 10% of them as drug users, abusers or addicts, meaning in a company of just 100 employees, 10 will at some point in 2020 have been under the influence of a drug, the statistics become more real to the community. These numbers don’t include persons with an alcohol addiction, where as much as 15% of workers are considered high-risk drinkers in the UK and 33% have worked whilst hungover.

Whilst there is a modicum of respect that must be afforded to employees regarding what they do during their personal time, employers also have a duty to ensure a safe workplace for all employees, drug and alcohol abuse in the workforce causes over £7.3bn estimated cost to businesses due to work absences as well as causing:

  • Loss of productivity and poor performance
  • Tardiness
  • Employee morale may be negatively impacted
  • Safety concerns
  • Bad behaviour or poor discipline (which in some circumstances can lead to increased risk of violence, sexual harassment or aggressive/abusive language)
  • Adverse effects on company image and relationships with customers

We spoke to Paul Spanjar, owner of the Providence Projects addiction treatment facility: “We should be tackling addiction in the workplace the same way we should be tackling mental health and the stigma around it. Addiction leads to missed days and lower productivity. Businesses should be focusing more on education, prevention, and supporting their employees in the event addiction has been identified”.

Tackling drug misuse in the workplace successfully benefits both the employees and the business by:

  • Cost savings in recruitment, training, absenteeism, termination
  • Improving employee morale through the creation of a more productive environment through the support offered to those employees who declare a drug-related problem,
  • Risk of accidents caused by impaired judgement reduced
  • Public perception of the company or organisation as a responsible employer will be increased in the community
  • Contributing to the communities efforts to combat drug misuse

It is important that employers, no matter their personal views, treat all cases with integrity and professionalism, especially as there is a large stigma attached to mental health issues and addiction, but to support staff wellbeing and in the interests of retaining talent and protecting productivity,

Employers need to have systems in place to firstly ensure the workplace is not a contributing factor to substance abuse, fostering or fuelling a work culture that allows, encourages or pushes employees to consider substances as a way to cope with their workload.

Workplaces present good opportunities for early detection (alcohol and drug screening), intervention (providing contact & encouragement for employees to seek specialist support) and support with regards to drug and alcohol misuse among employees, dismissal and discipline do not need to be the default when misuse is evident, employers can offer support through:

  • Occupational health,
  • Employee assistance programmes,
  • Health insurance or benefit plans,
  • Access to specialist counselling or support services
  • Flexible working hours
  • Being realistic and open about the support that can be offered to balance the employee’s needs with the impact on business.
  • Sick leave for receiving treatment
  • Education on drug misuse
  • Assurance of confidentiality

In addition to the normal workplace preventative, education and support needed for addiction, there is now the added uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic downturn that has caused an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs to cope with the increased stress, pressure, fear and isolation. Drinkaware has published their 4th report since the pandemic started stating that 20% of UK adults reported drinking more than usual since March 2020, among them:

  • 39% Furloughed workers
  • 49% of those were either made redundant or in the process of redundancy
  • 31% were those who were experiencing negative impacts to their mental health
  • 34% were experiencing work-related stress

Having good open communication with regards to the policies businesses have, ensures that employees feel able to ask for support and know their employer will provide it.