How can HR & employers assist employees with alcohol and drug problems?

Chris is a 38 year old executive working in a financial asset management company in London. He has a wife and two young children. He is doing well in his career and has recently made some successful trades. He gets on well with his colleagues and when they go on nights out he likes to drink alcohol and take cocaine. Some of his colleagues do the same and the HR personnel know about it, but ignore it because it doesn’t interfere with his work.

He begins to take the occasional line of cocaine in the office toilets. But no one notices so Chris is confident that he can get away with it. He feels it gives him an edge and he is able to think quicker and make surprisingly accurate decisions on the markets. He hears from one colleague that speed will help him work longer hours, so he starts to take speed. At night he sometimes finds it hard to sleep so he takes prescription sleeping pills.

He occasionally thinks about quitting but is worried that his performance will suffer as a result. Chris’ managers have noticed his excessive risk-taking and erratic behaviour and are unhappy about the affects this is having on clients’ funds and client relations; they caution Chris.

Chris’ stress is mounting and he begins drinking heavily in the evenings to relax after the working day and often arrives late into work with a hangover. Sometimes he doesn’t make it home at night. His wife is worried but he insists that everything is fine. His colleagues are talking behind his back about his appearance and erratic behavior. Eventually he is requested to attend a meeting with HR:

What happens next?

  1. Chris is told to pack his belongings away and leave immediately.
  2. Chris is given a final warning and told that it is up to him to find help.
  3. HR want to support him and refer him to an occupational physician for assessment with a view to starting therapy sessions.
  4. HR recommend a rehab clinic to Chris, where he can have residential treatment to deal with his drug dependency; as a valued employee HR will arrange a six week sick leave plan for him.
  5. Any of the above?

The answer is number 5. Number 4 is the least likely option, yet the one that can give the quickest and most effective results.

Do employees have a right to rehab?

Whether you are a financial executive, a nurse, a factory worker, or an engineer it is down to your employer to decide on a company policy of how to deal with drugs, alcohol and gambling in the workplace. Employees do have some rights under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, but the pressure to keep hiding the problem may be too great – they well-know that there are dozens of potential recruits lined up to take their place.

The Health and Safety Executive say that employers have a “general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of your employees.” But is this going far enough? What does ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’ mean in real terms?  The HSE do “encourage” employers to create a ‘policy on drug misuse’ as part of their organisation’s overall Health & Safety policy, but encouraged seems like a rather weak word for such a complicated problem.

It pays to get your employee into rehab

In line with HSE advice Castle Craig points out that the cost of recruiting and training a new employee to replace one who has been fired for alcohol or drug abuse is often greater than allowing someone time off to get intense, residential rehab. And many people with alcohol or drug problems are able to return to work as a renewed, productive and grateful employee. As well as this staff morale is likely to be badly affected if they see how this employee has been treated for what is essentially a medical condition.

It might be difficult for people to admit to themselves that they have a drinking or drug problem. Addiction is a disease defined by denial and addicts rarely comprehend the suffering they are causing to their family, or the embarrassment or frustration they are causing their colleagues. It may take an intervention by a medical professional or therapist trained in drug and alcohol addictions to make them realise that they are on a downward spiral and need help. In order to help them admit to this though, they need to know that their employer will treat their addiction as a health problem, rather than a reason for dismissal.

Support for Employers

Castle Craig offers to help employers find solutions for alcohol and drug problems in the workplace, visit Support for Employers.