Drink and drug dependency was already a growing issue prior to mass home working, but many firms are ill-equipped to offer support
in research by alcohol education charity Drinkaware in May 2020 more than one in four of those working from home because of lockdown who usually drink said they were doing so more than usual. This rose to one in three among the 9.6 million on furlough, with 15 per cent of furloughed workers who usually drink reporting having their first drink earlier in the day than they would usually, and 9 per cent saying they’d either had a drink in secret or covered it up.
For those on furlough, as well as a way to deal with stress and uncertainty, the increase can be put down to simply not having to get up for work the next morning, says Dr Rob Hampton of RHH Medical, an occupational physician and GP with an extended role in drug and alcohol treatment. “Someone coined the phrase ‘every night’s a Friday night’ at the start of lockdown, and that just encapsulates it,” he says. “Many people have got no other responsibilities.”
At the more extreme end of the scale, Hampton also reports seeing an increase in small business owners and self-employed patients in his role treating those with particularly advanced substance misuse issues. “There are more people coming through who were coping with hazardous levels of drinking before, but then lost their entire businesses within a week because of Covid-19 and turned to dependent drinking,” he says.
And it seems many employers still only see drug or alcohol issues as something to be addressed if or when they begin to affect an employee’s performance, as opposed to incorporating this into their wellbeing strategy. The CIPD’s new report, Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, found nearly a fifth of businesses see drug and alcohol misuse mainly as a disciplinary issue, despite more than a third having disciplined someone for alcohol misuse in the last two years, and just over a quarter for drug misuse.
The most stringent legal obligations on this in the UK are for health and safety-critical industries where being under the influence at work is an instantly dismissible offence.
But some employers must be mindful of the Equality Act 2010, as alcohol or drug problems – while not classed as a disability in their own right – may be caused by something classed as a disability, such as depression or anxiety. In which case employers would be required to make reasonable adjustments and dismissing an employee without offering any support would likely be held unfair by a tribunal.
And, regardless of the legal onus, there’s an important ethical (not to mention reputational) dimension, says Guy Pink, HR consultant and former HR director at addiction charity We Are With You (formerly Addaction). “You wouldn’t dismiss someone who told you they had a mental health issue or a broken leg, so why would you dismiss someone with alcohol or drug issues?” We entirely agree when he says “It should be seen as a wellbeing issue. Support should be provided to enable that person to take control of their life and return to the workplace as a fully functioning member of the team.”
Although the majority of employers have formal procedures in place, fewer have implemented any real support mechanism. As the first port of call for many employees’ problems, line managers are indispensable when it comes to effectively managing workplace alcohol and drug issues. Yet the CIPD research found just one in four organisations provide regular refresher training for line managers on substance misuse in the workplace, and only one in 10 provide one-off training.