Alcohol, drugs and substance abuse

Alcohol, drugs and substance misuse: an introduction

The misuse of drugs, including alcohol and other substances, can be a serious problem for the abuser, co-workers and the organisation itself.

Alcohol, drugs and other substances have a strongly negative effect on the brain and the body, impairing judgement and concentration and putting the abuser and co-workers at risk.

Staff who misuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to take time off, display poor performance and increase the risk of accidents. These factors weaken an organisation’s overall performance.

Click here for more about accidents at work.

Most drugs are illegal, which means that anyone in possession of drugs at work may risk prosecution or disciplinary action.

Employers’ responsibilities

Employers have a legal responsibility to look after employees’ wellbeing, health and safety. A good employer will want to help employees. In some cases, alcohol or drug misuse may be used to help cope with work-related stress. If there is a problem with alcohol or drug misuse in your workplace then this may be part of a wider stress problem.

Some employers treat alcohol and drug misuse as a medical rather than a disciplinary matter. In this case, the chances of overcoming the problem is assessed and a reasonable period of time off for recovery is agreed.

They may also consider appropriate help to treat the employee (for example, by contributing towards the cost of counselling), treat any absence for treatment and rehabilitation as normal sick leave and review the person’s work to ensure that their workload is not contributing to the problem.


Even if there is no evidence of their use, organisations can benefit from a policy on drugs, alcohol and other substances in consultation with staff or health and safety representatives.

Any policy must be suitable for the organisation. In some workplaces it will form part of the overall health and safety policy but may also be part of an occupational health policy.  In some organisations a separate policy on alcohol and drugs is developed.

Click here for more about risk assessments.

ACAS has produced the following checklist on what should be included within a policy on drugs misuse at work:

  • the purpose of the policy – for example: ‘This policy is designed to help protect workers from the dangers of drug and other substance misuse and to encourage those with a drugs problem to seek help’;
  • a statement that the policy applies to everyone in the organisation;
  • the rules on the use of drugs and other substances at work;
  • a statement that the organisation recognises that a drugs problem may be an illness to be treated in the same way as any other illness;
  • the potential dangers to the health and safety of drug misusers and their colleagues if a drugs problem is untreated;
  • the importance of early identification and treatment;
  • the help available – for example, from managers, supervisors, company doctor, occupational health service or outside agency;
  • the disciplinary position – for example, an organisation may agree to suspend disciplinary action, where drug misuse is a factor, on condition that the worker follows a suitable course of action;
  • the provision of paid sick leave for agreed treatment;
  • the individual’s right to return to the same job after effective treatment or, where this is not advisable, to suitable alternative employment wherever possible;
  • an assurance of confidentiality;
  • whether an individual will be allowed a second period of treatment if he or she relapses;
  • the provision for education on drug misuse;
  • a statement that the policy will be regularly reviewed, has the support of top management and that, where appropriate, worker representative have been consulted.

Read the full text of the ACAS booklet Health and Employment.

Having an agreed policy helps ensure the issues are dealt with as legitimate workplace matters in a non-judgemental way.

It is important that managers and staff all know how the organisation will deal with drug and alcohol related issues. It will also help staff gain the confidence to come forward and seek help either for themselves or others without fear of disciplinary action.


Employers who decide to adopt alcohol or drug screening as part of their alcohol and drugs policy should ensure this is done lawfully and fairly. Screening is the way of testing whether employees have alcohol, drugs or other substances in their body. Usually this involves providing a urine sample.

UNISON has some concerns about the testing of workers. This is because while it is fairly straightforward to test for alcohol consumption and measure this against a legal limit, drug testing can be more complex.

Some employees, such as those who work in a safety critical area, may be automatically or randomly tested for alcohol or drugs due to the nature of their work.

Screening is a sensitive matter. Employers need the permission of employees and should only carry out screening when they have a reason for testing under health and safety policy.

Employers should ensure that:

  • no-one is singled out during random testing;
  • if a search for alcohol or drugs is carried out then it must be by someone of the same sex, with a witness present;
  • employees are made aware of any possible disciplinary action they may face if they refuse a test.

Alcohol, drug and substance abuse and the law

Employers could be acting illegally if they knowingly allow drug-related activities to go on at work but do not act. They should also know the implications of not tackling abuse.

It is illegal if:

  • an employee under the influence of excess alcohol is knowingly allowed to work (Health and Safety at Work Act);
  • controlled substances are produced, supplied or used on an employer’s premises (The Misuse of Drugs Act);
  • drivers of road vehicles and transport system workers are under the influence of drugs while driving or unfit through drugs while working (The Road Traffic and the Transport and Works Act).

Counselling and support

Drug, alcohol or substance abuse is difficult for anyone. It is better for employers to find ways to support employees abusing these substances than to discipline them.

Employers could, for example, encourage employees to seek specialist support via their GP or local treatment service if they suspect they have a problem or addiction.

What to do if you feel that your alcohol consumption is affecting your working life

Alcohol makes you feel more relaxed in the short term. But according to independent UK charity Drinkaware, if you regularly drink more than three to four units a day if you are a man, or two to three units if you are a women you could be making yourself feel more stressed.

Some of the physical signs are:

  • sweating;
  • shaking;
  • loss of appetite;
  • stomach problems;
  • memory loss, blackouts.

Alcohol slows down the brain and the processes of the central nervous system’s processes, which can affect your work performance badly.

If you feel alcohol is affecting your work, you should contact a professional alcohol advice helpline.

Drinkaware Advise and Support.

The deaf health charity SIGNHEALTH also provides access to healthcare and information


What to do if you find someone is abusing alcohol or taking drugs at work

Speak to your UNISON rep immediately.

Action for UNISON reps

There is much that reps can do to raise awareness of drugs and alcohol misuse whether or not there is evidence that it is happening at work.

For example, reps could raise awareness of signs to look out for if alcohol, drug or substance abuse in the workplace is suspected, using guides from UNISON and specialist organisations. Many guides such as those from the HSE suggest consultation with union reps.

Reps could also:

  • negotiate a drugs and alcohol policy with your employer;
  • ask the employer to look at the workload of anyone suspected of misusing alcohol, drugs or other substances and review the risk assessment if necessary.
Key facts
  • Drug, alcohol and substance misuse has serious implications for employees’ health, safety and performance in the workplace.
  • All organisations can benefit from a policy on drugs, alcohol and other substances in consultation with staff and health and safety representatives.
  • If drug or alcohol screening is to take place, employers must first get employees’ consent.
  • Employers should encourage employees to use specialist support if they are misusing drugs or alcohol.


Alcohol, drugs and substance abuse

  • Can my employer help me if I have a dependency on alcohol, drugs or other substances?

    Employers have a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing health and safety of staff under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Disciplinary action should be a last resort.

  • Could I be arrested or fined for being on drugs or under the influence of alcohol while at work?

    Yes. Under a law called the Misuse of Drugs Act, if you drink alcohol or take drugs or other substances (except when prescribed by a doctor) while at work, you could be breaking the law and you may be prosecuted.

  • Could I be sacked for being on drugs or under the influence of alcohol while at work?

    If your employer can prove that drugs or alcohol have had a detrimental impact on your ability to do your job, you may be dismissed. They must have a good reason to justify dismissal, related to your conduct or capability.

    You may be sacked if your conduct is so bad that it means you’ve broken one or more of the terms of your employment, for example: continually missing work; showing poor discipline; evidence of drug or alcohol abuse; or theft or dishonesty.

    Your employer should follow a fair disciplinary procedure before dismissing you for misconduct. Under this procedure they may also consider help and other interventions such as counselling.

  • Could my employer be prosecuted if I am under the influence of alcohol at work?

    Yes. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act employers could be prosecuted if they know you are under the influence of excess alcohol and you are allowed to continue working, putting co-workers at risk.