Dealing with an Alcoholic Employee and Having a Workplace Alcohol Policy

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Hungover in the office

An employee of yours has reported to their line manager that a colleague smells of alcohol. Do you have a workplace alcohol policy or drugs policy in place? Does their role involve driving or working with heavy machinery? Do you feel confident in your staff to efficiently investigate any issues of alcohol and drugs in the workplace?

Previously on HR24, we discussed the role of random drug and alcohol testing in work. With the football season starting again, it felt necessary to cover how you should handle employee drinking-related misconduct in the workplace.

According to ACAS, in 2015, nearly a third of UK workers admitted to being under the influence of alcohol at work or alcohol affecting their work to some extent, at least once a week. This data does not mean that employees drinking on the job was an issue or that they were an alcoholic worker,  just that they were under the influence during working hours. In the survey of around 2600 workers, an enormous 85% claimed to have been drunk at work at some point that year, not including the Christmas party.

Additionally, the survey highlighted that more than a quarter of the respondents claimed to have worked under the influence of drugs. Results showed that employees under the influence of alcohol and drugs in the workplace were considerably higher among younger employees. 90% of those using drugs were under 30 years old.

Where’s the Harm in Staff Drinking at Work?

According to Drinkaware Trust, an independent UK-wide alcohol education charity, as much as one in four workplace accidents involve an employee drinking at work. If your business is in the transport or energy sector, one indisposed employee is a significant threat to colleagues and public members, depending on their role. Similarly, if your business is based in an office handling sensitive data such as client information, an employee with an alcohol problem making one mistake could cost you dearly in lost trade.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), alcohol is estimated to cause 3-5% of all absences from work, with 8-14 million lost working days in the UK each year. The HSE warns that you could get prosecuted if you knowingly allow an employee drinking at work or under the influence of “excess alcohol” to continue working, placing the employee or others at risk.

Investigating an Employee with an Alcohol Problem

If you feel that you may have an employee with an alcohol problem, launch an investigation. Initially, you should interview any suspected alcoholic employees to try and establish the extent of their condition. You need to determine whether or not the staff member is incapable of working or if they are posing a risk to themselves or anyone else due to the employee drinking at work. If that is the case, and they are under the influence of alcohol and drugs in the workplace, you must send them home immediately. As an employer, you shouldn’t allow yourself to overlook such instances. You should have a zero tolerance alcohol policy in the workplace. Not handling employee drunkenness could set the wrong kind of precedent and thus inspire other staff members to similarly come to work intoxicated, assuming you’re unlikely to take action against an employee drinking at work.

You can also refer to what information you have stored on that employee regarding their sickness absence. If, for instance, you find that they frequently miss work after sporting events or known work nights out, you will better understand the nature of any employees with alcohol problems.

Once you have completed your investigation into any employees with alcohol problems, you may find it necessary to start your disciplinary process if appropriate. Please feel free to contact us on our helpline, or we have a series of webinars covering this if unsure.

Supporting Employees with Alcohol Problems & Your Drug And Alcohol Policy In The Workplace

A drug and alcohol policy in the workplace won’t guarantee that you avoid this issue entirely. Still, it will provide a guideline for handling this situation safely without finding yourself taken to a tribunal. Some organisations will not treat drug and alcohol dependence as an illness and offer support through various help networks in their policies. Other organisations have fantastic policies supporting employees with alcohol problems or drug addiction. Ensure that you have a unified work alcohol policy and drug policy approach to employees under such circumstances.

Alcohol and Drugs in the workplace FAQs

What should I do if an alcoholic worker comes to work intoxicated?

Dealing with an alcoholic employee that comes to work intoxicated can be difficult. Still, there are ways to handle the situation without causing embarrassment to the employee and keeping your business running smoothly. If you have security on site, ask them to escort the employee with alcohol problems to a private and secure place in the building. Contact your HR department and report the employee, and then either contact a family member of the alcoholic worker to take them home or call the local police to remove them from the premises. Alcoholism is a horrific disease, and supporting employees with alcohol problems is important. Still, you have to consider the health and safety of the alcoholic worker, other employees, and the running of your business.

Can I breath test an employee I suspect of using alcohol and drugs in the workplace?

Yes and no. You can test an employee you suspect is high on alcohol and drugs in the workplace so long as the test gets administered fairly. It is legal to test them, but they can refuse to partake if they feel they have been singled out from others. You should have a drug and alcohol policy in the workplace so all employees know that this could happen at work.

Can I terminate someone’s employment because they are an alcoholic worker?

As an employer of an alcoholic worker, you are free to terminate an employee’s contract only if their drinking impairs their ability to do the job they were employed to do. You cannot terminate their employment based on the fact that they have a drug or alcohol addiction. If they are using drugs and alcohol in the workplace, that is a different matter altogether, and you would have grounds for dismissal.

My business has a drug and alcohol policy in the workplace, but can I terminate an employee’s contract for coming into work with a hangover?

I think most employers, being realistic, would expect some employees to have a hangover at work at some point during their employment. It isn’t a big issue for most employers until it becomes a regular occurrence and starts affecting employee performance, safety, and productivity. Having a drug and alcohol policy in the workplace sets out what you expect from employees. Still, if it becomes a persistent pattern of behaviour, then as an employer, you can start looking at taking disciplinary action and suspending the employee. Supporting employees with alcohol problems is commendable, but sometimes a hangover is just due to a lack of discipline from an individual employee, and action needs to be taken.

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Elena Boura