Think HBR

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace

Karen Ansen
It will come as no surprise to any employer that the impact of alcohol and drugs in the workplace is considerable. Research has estimated that 2.5 million days are lost annually due to alcohol and drug use, at a cost of more than $680 million to Australian workplaces as well as an estimated $6 billion per year in lost productivity.
However, it’s not only the Australian workplace and economy that are affected. One in 10 workers report that they have experienced the negative effects associated with a co-worker’s misuse of alcohol or other drugs. These negative effects include their reduced ability to do their job, involvement in an accident or close call, and working extra hours to cover for a co-worker.
The challenge facing employers is figuring out how to guard against something that seems so out of their control. Fair Work has made it clear that random drug and alcohol testing is an intrusion of the privacy of the individual which can only be justified on Work Health and Safety grounds. Additionally, there is much case law that supports that an employer has no right to dictate what alcohol or drugs its employees take in their own time[1]. However, an employer has a legitimate right (and indeed obligation) to try and eliminate the risk of employees coming to work impaired by alcohol or drugs that could pose a risk to health and safety of other employees and clients.
Work environments are an important and effective place to combat alcoholism and other drug issues by establishing or promoting programs focused on improving health. Many individuals and families face a host of difficulties closely associated with problem drinking and drug use, and these problems quite often spill over into the workplace. By encouraging and supporting treatment, employers can dramatically assist in reducing the negative impact of alcoholism and addiction in the workplace, while at the same time reducing their costs. Research has demonstrated time and time again that alcohol and drug treatment pays for itself and employers with successful EAP’s and DFWP’s report better health status among employees and family members and decreased use of medical benefits.
Without question the establishment of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is the most effective way to address alcohol and drug problems in the workplace. EAPs deal with all kinds of problems and provide short-term counselling, assessments and referrals. Additionally, implementing a drug-free workplace (DFWP) supported by a framework; offering health benefits; reducing stigma in the workplace; and educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs all have high success outcomes. Many organisations have Codes of Conduct that expressly prohibit any employee from being under the influence of drugs or alcohol within the workplace. What they lack however is a policy framework to equip them with a legally defensible process following the identification of the issue.
If you would like to discuss your obligations as an employer, or ensure your Workplace Health and Safety policy protects and supports your employees, contact performPR on 1300 406 005.
[1] Shell Refining (Australia) Pty Ltd, Clyde Refinery v Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union [2008] AIRC 510; Endeavour Energy v Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia and others [2012] FWA 1809.
Karen Ansen2 Karen Ansen
brings a wealth of knowledge to her role as Client Service Director, and has a strong belief in a holistic approach to workplace issues. With over 15 years’ experience in both Workplace Law and Employee Relations, Karen is an expert on the legal principles that govern employer-employeerelationships, including the Fair Work Act, Workplace Health and Safety Laws, counselling and mediation.