Managing Alcohol Use in the Workplace

Alcohol and drug misuse is everyone’s concern. In the context of work, not only does it damage the misuser’s health and potentially increase the risk to all workers’ health and safety, but it can cost employers through absenteeism and reduced productivity. There are well-documented links between alcohol and drug use, prescribed or not. The risks include impairment in cognition, perception and motor skills, at both acute and chronic levels, as well as a number of specific health risks.

Employers should adopt a substance misuse policy, in consultation with their staff, and employment contracts should be clear about this. This policy should aim to support affected employees, with disciplinary measures a last resort.

When determining the action to be taken by the employer in respect of alcohol and drugs at work, it is useful to be able to determine the difference between dependency and misuse. Substance abuse can affect all levels of staff, including the most senior. Alcohol or drug dependency is a combination of behavioural and physiological symptoms that indicate a person has impaired control of the use of substances. Such a person continues the use of a substance despite the potential adverse consequences. Those who have developed a long-term dependency on alcohol or non-prescribed drugs may require specialist help and support.

Misuse of alcohol and drugs can be understood as a maladaptive pattern of use that continues despite the misuser’s knowledge of having “a persistent or recurrent social, occupational, psychological or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the use”. It must be remembered that prescription drugs, over-the-counter remedies, natural health remedies, so-called dieting drugs performance, enhancement substances, etc. may be entirely legitimate substances that impact on work activities. Advice from an occupational health physician should be sought if this is perceived as a potential issue in any particular workplace situation.

While the discussion below relates to employees, where contract staff, contractors or joint venture partners are involved with day-to-day work, there should be agreed contractual arrangements between the
parties along similar lines as outlined for direct employees. In other words, individuals working alongside
one another should never be working to different safety rules.

Causes of Substance Abuse

The causes of substance abuse can be many and varied but may include the following.

  • A stressful workplace. Workloads, cuts in staff, change, shift work and bullying and harassment may mean that employees turn to alcohol or drugs to find relief from these pressures.
  • A workplace culture that encourages the use and perhaps the misuse of alcohol or drugs (eg via corporate hospitality).
  • Long hours, working away from home and associated family dynamics can also be a reason for people using and misusing alcohol or drugs on a regular basis.


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