Practice matters: Alcohol and the workplace

Employment law adviser Janice Sibbald discusses the importance of having a practice policy on alcohol and drug use

ONE of the many talking points throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic has been the methods people have used to cope with lockdown and the restrictions on our freedom. These are incredibly uncertain and anxious times and it will come as no surprise that one popular coping mechanism is alcohol.

New research commissioned by charity Alcohol Change UK revealed that a fifth (21 per cent) of adults who drink alcohol have been drinking more often since lockdown began. Billed as “the most extensive research yet into drinking during lockdown”, it found this unprecedented period is having a “significant impact on the way the UK drinks”.

Alcohol has long been a go-to stress reliever for many, and in this very challenging time it’s not surprising that people find themselves reaching for a drink more often.

We live in an alco-centric culture where it is common place to talk openly about wine or gin o’clock and how much fun it is to drink alcohol. But what happens when the fun times stop being fun? What isn’t spoken about is the impact regular or excessive drinking can have on our sleep, wellbeing and mental health. Even a low-grade hangover can make us short tempered and more likely to avoid exercise in favour of fatty and carb-loaded foods.

AFFECTING PERFORMANCE

If someone’s drinking is heavy then it can impact their work performance, even if they aren’t actually drinking during working time.

What should you do if someone’s drinking is starting to affect their attendance or performance at work?

Having an alcohol problem or being diagnosed as an “alcoholic” in itself isn’t covered under the Equality Act in relation to disability discrimination. However, the mental health issues that often affect someone with an alcohol problem, such as anxiety and depression, can be.

You should ensure that your practice has an up-to-date policy relating to the use of both alcohol and drugs.

It is important to consider what kind of approach your practice wants to take. An employee being drunk or under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work could be viewed as gross misconduct under a practice’s disciplinary policy. Due to the patient safety implications, many practices have a zero tolerance approach to staff being under the influence at work.

During these incredibly stressful times, a more understanding approach could be to view alcohol/drug misuse as a health issue that the employee needs some help with. Speak to the person about their behaviour and explore possible avenues for support. It may be beneficial to refer them to occupational health or to seek advice from their GP, while preventing patient-facing work until such time as the issue has been satisfactorily resolved.

For someone who is struggling with alcohol or drugs, this intervention from an employer may act as a wake-up call and be a positive starting point for change.

There are many organisations out there offering help that employees can be signposted to, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART recovery or online groups such as Soberistas to name but a few.

REFUSING HELP

However, if it is clear the employee has a problem but is in denial or refusing to get help, then it may be that disciplinary is the most appropriate course of action.

Sometimes the situation is less clear-cut. There may be no proof of drinking or admittance from the employee of an alcohol issue, but you believe that their performance or attendance is not of the required standard. You should then tackle the performance or absence issues under your normal procedures. Whether your practice chooses to deal with alcohol or drug-related problems as a misconduct or a health issue, it is clear that each case should be looked at individually. Take into account factors such as length of service, and desire to engage with the practice and relevant healthcare professionals.

  • For more detailed advice, contact the MDDUS employment law team on advice@mddus.com.
  • MDDUS members can access a template drug and alcohol policy by logging into their MDDUS account and clicking on “employment law resources” in the “My Account” dashboard.