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“Excessive drinking among 25- to 59-year-old is the world’s number-one risk factor for ill health and premature death.”

There is nothing wrong with the occasional drink. Most of us like to relax and enjoy a glass of wine beer or gin and tonic every now and then. The occasional drink in the right place and at the right time is one thing, but it is estimated that 17 million working days per year are lost to absenteeism as a result of alcohol abuse. Excessive drinking among 25- to 59-year-old is the world’s number-one risk factor for ill health and premature death. According to studies in Scandinavia and Australia, alcohol consumption measured by drinks per week is positively associated with the number of sickness absence days for both men and women.

I once worked with a man who was suspected of having a drinking problem. We were unsure if the smell of alcohol was from the previous night or if he was drinking at work. Before we had a chance to investigate the matter properly he was caught by the staff lockers drinking from a large bottle of cider. He was not an employee of the company so his manager was called and he was removed from site with immediate effect.

Whether an employee is drinking at work or in his own time it can still become a problem in the work place. The employee may not necessarily be intoxicated at work but too much alcohol can impact performance in a variety of ways. In some cases it may be that he or she performs slower or with less accuracy. The employee may appear tired or sluggish and is persistently late or absent for short periods of time. Any of the above will have an impact on productivity and, in turn, have a larger impact on the business i.e. company profit, health and safety issues.

In more serious cases it could lead to an employee losing his job. For example, your employee is a HGV driver. He gets stopped by the police while driving his own vehicle and is found to be over the legal limit. He goes to court and ends up losing his licence. This impacts on his HGV licence. The loss of or failure to achieve an essential qualification is one of the five fair reasons for dismissal. A reasonable employer must look for a suitable alternative vacancy for the driver. For example, you may have a vacancy which he can fill for the next 12 to 18 months to cover the period of his ban and obtaining his licence again. The driving role can then be covered using a fixed term contract. As a condition of this you may say that the employee needs to obtain professional help for the drinking. If you have no vacancies you will have to follow a fair process in order to dismiss the employee.

It is sensible to have a drug and alcohol policy in place which allows you to carry out checks where necessary. The policy will allow you to carry out testing before an employee commences employment, after any accidents or if you believe an employee to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is known as “with cause” testing. Where necessary you may also be able to implement random testing. This is done for those who work in safety critical jobs, for example driving, operating machinery or caring for others. The testing should be done by someone who is qualified. Employee confidentiality is important when performing any tests. Checks should take place to avoid any false results, for example someone who has taken ibuprofen may give a positive reading on a test having not touched a drop of alcohol.

Although the majority of heavy drinkers are of working age and in employment, it is not always obvious to them or others that their drinking is affecting their health and subsequently their employment. In most UK workplaces, it is relatively rare to find staff drinking while at work. Off-duty drinking after work or between shifts can still affect an employee’s ability to perform well, as well as affecting their health.

Workplace alcohol risk assessments can be helpful in identifying and reducing alcohol consumption and have been used with good results. The approach is simple. Using a risk-assessment sheet, employees are asked a number of questions about their drinking and given health-based feedback on their score and advice on future action. In this way, individuals identify what level of risk their drinking poses and advice and support can be given at an early stage.

Are you struggling to deal with an employee abuse of alcohol and drugs? Attend the Alcohol and Drugs: The Management of Workplace Problems training day.