Alcohol drug and substance policy

Why you should have an alcohol, drug and substance misuse policy


19 February 2018

The start of a New Year encourages many of us try to turn over a new leaf to live more healthily – witness, for example, the 5 million Britons who took part in Alcohol Concern’s Dry January in 2017. [1] For some alcohol, drug or substance misuse is a bigger challenge to overcome. And, for their employers, it can mean more sickness absence, increased staff turnover and lost productivity. In short, it can be a big issue, but not an insurmountable one. Introducing an alcohol, drug and substance misuse policy can help address and provide a way forward for what can be a very sensitive and personal problem for the employee and a difficult issue for the line manager. Indeed, having such a policy in place should be an essential part of any employer’s strategy for protecting workplace health and safety and creating a framework that equally supports all parties – the company, line manager and employee.

But first, back to basics. 

What do we mean by misuse? 

Misuse is where drinking alcoholic beverages or taking illegal, prescribed or over the counter drugs (when not for a medical condition), or other substances such as solvents so that it interferes with the user’s health, social functioning and/or conduct and capability. Misuse can be intermittent or ongoing.


Counting the cost

One thing is clear. Drink and drug problems cost the economy as well as the individual:

  • 41% of HR professionals polled by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development said that alcohol was an important cause of absence and lost productivity in their organisation; for drug misuse, the figure was 34%. [2] 
  • A 2012 Home Office report estimated lost productivity due to alcohol was costing employers around £7.3bn a year. [3] 
  • Public Health England estimates 167,000 working years in England were lost due to alcohol in 2015, accounting for 16% of the total. [4]
  • A report by Cardiff University researchers for the Health and Safety Executive on illegal drug use in the UK workforce found that 13% of the workers they surveyed said they’d used illicit drugs use in the previous year – this ranged from 3% of over-50s to 29% of under-30s. [5]

The appliance of compliance

One of the main reasons for having an alcohol, drugs and substance misuse policy is to help employers ensure they meet their duty of care to protect the health and safety of employees and members of the public. Employers that knowingly allow employees to work while under the influence of drink or drugs can be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Those in the transport sector may additionally be prosecuted under the Transport and Works Act 1992 if they don’t show due diligence in this regard. 

As well as putting your company at risk of legal action there is also The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These require employers to ensure employees have undertaken a risk relating to their workplace activity. This can include risks arising from potential alcohol and drug misuse. And, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, employers who knowingly permit the production, supply or taking of controlled drugs on their premises could be committing a criminal offence.

But it’s not just about compliance

In addition to helping employers meet their regulatory requirements, introducing an alcohol, drug and substance misuse policy can help them to reduce workplace accidents and injuries, sickness absence and presenteeism – that is, working when unwell or hungover. Employees can benefit too when their employer takes a positive, supportive approach to addressing the issue, for example, by providing awareness programmes on the pitfalls of alcohol, drug and substance misuse. The policy should also encourage early identification and support for at-risk or affected individuals to help prevent problems or potential problems from escalating. 

Drawing up an alcohol drug, and substance misuse policy

Positioning should be constructive, emphasising the employer’s commitment to building a positive, supportive workplace culture that safeguards employee health and wellbeing. For this to be credible, the buy-in and visible support of the company’s leadership is essential. The company must also take care to ensure they’re not part of the problem – for instance, by encouraging or turning a blind eye to a workplace drinking culture. 

A policy should:

  1. Explain its purpose – why it exists and who it applies to. It should set out the company’s expectations for reporting for work fit for duty. Likewise its stance on drinking alcohol pre- and on-duty, including while entertaining clients or at corporate events.
  2. Encourage and support employees with alcohol, drug or substance misuse problems to seek help voluntarily, and signpost clearly where they can go for help. This can include resources such as the company’s occupational health service, which can provide an expert medical assessment of and recommendations for dealing with the situation. 
  3. Acknowledge that there could be an underlying personal issue. It’s also important for employers to appreciate that signs associated with alcohol, drug or substance misuse such as behaving in an odd/erratic manner, deterioration in appearance and working relationships, poor time keeping and persistent unauthorised or short term absence, may have other causes. For example, they may be a manifestation of an underlying mental health condition that may also need to be treated. In severe cases, this may include a period of detoxification and rehabilitation, which employer health insurance schemes if available may help to pay for.

    Psychological support from qualified counsellors and psychologists may also be available to employees whose employers offer access to an employee assistance programme, to which employees may self refer or be referred by their manager. Advice and support may also be available from their GP and NHS Choices as well as from charities such as Action on Addiction, Addaction and Alcoholics Anonymous.

    But, whatever route an employee takes to get medical help or support, it’s imperative to preserve their confidentiality. 
  4. Be clear what steps the company will take if employees are found to have breached the policy.  To help avoid misunderstandings, definitions such as what constitutes misconduct should be clear. 
  5. Explain employees’ duties and responsibilities during and after treatment as well as told what to do if they should have a relapse. Employees who disclose that they have a problem or are participating in a treatment programme should also be told that this should not prejudice their job security or chances of promotion, providing that they remain compliant with therapy and demonstrate that they are on route for a full recovery, if this is consistent with their employer’s policies and procedures.
  6. Include guidelines on what employees should do in if they feel a colleague is experiencing an alcohol, drug or substance misuse problem. For example, report their concern to their manager or to the company’s human resources department. This is important because early identification gives employers an opportunity to intervene to help the affected employee.

In addition:

Employers whose operations include safety critical jobs may also need to introduce a workplace random testing programme to meet statutory requirements to safeguard their employees and members of the public.

Finally, to help secure employee buy-in to the policy, it’s prudent to consult with employee or health and safety representatives when drawing it up.


The policy should be included in the company’s employee handbook and drawn to the employee’s attention at the time of joining the company. Additions or amendments should be shared through the company’s usual channels for employee communications.

Resources such as awareness-raising, educational material should be actively promoted, both for preventive purposes and to remind employees who may have a problem that help is available – and where to get it.

Managers should be properly trained and supported to recognise and approach employees affected by alcohol, drug or substance misuse. That includes knowing what to do when an employee turns up at work smelling of alcohol or seemingly under the influence of drugs. Again, abnormal behaviour from an employee may have other causes so it’s important for managers not to leap to conclusions but, rather, speak to the employee to try to understand what’s troubling them. Remind them how the company’s misuse policy applies and guide them to suitable support, empathetically.





Dr Habbab joined AXA Health in November 2010 as a Consultant Occupational Health Physician and took on the role of Medical Director in 2015. Yousef takes responsibility for medical standards and service delivery of our Occupational Health physicians and is responsible for clinical governance within our health services. He is supported by the dedicated clinical governance manager and team.

As Medical Director he is responsible for strategic planning and key client support and is a member of the Senior Leadership Team. Yousef is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and Member of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians in London. 




Other external resources you may find useful

The Health and Safety Executive’s guides Don’t mix it [6] and Drug misuse at work [7] are good sources of further information and advice for employers on managing alcohol, drug and substance misuse at work.


[1] Alcohol Concern (2017). About Dry January – our story.

[2] Home Office (2012). A minimum unit price for alcohol.

[3] Public Health England (2016). The public health burden of alcohol and the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of alcohol control policies: an evidence review

[4] Smith A, Wadsworth E, Moss S and Simpson S (2004). The scale and impact of illegal drug use by workers. Health and Safety Executive.

[5] Health and Safety Executive (2012). Don't mix it. A guide for employers on alcohol at work.

[6] Health and Safety Executive (2015). Drug misuse at work. A guide for employers.