Man and woman walking along the street

A guide for managers

Alcohol and substance misuse

Alcohol and drug abuse can be as destructive for the workplace as for the person involved. Substance misuse can pose significant risks to the employee, their colleagues, the business, and to the public, especially if the job they are doing is safety critical or safety sensitive. Handling a situation where you suspect such abuse can be very challenging for managers and employers. This guide is designed to help you take the steps you need to take.


Signs and symptoms

Look out for the following:

  • The presence of alcohol or drugs
  • Disorientation
  • Unsteadiness
  • The smell of alcohol
  • Slurred speech
  • Drunken behaviour without the smell of alcohol
  • Poor timekeeping
  • A change in appearance
  • Glassy eyes
  • Mood swings
  • Aggressiveness
  • Mistakes in work
  • On-the-job accident or injury
  • Confusion
  • Regular pattern of sickness absence

How to act when you suspect someone is misusing alcohol or drugs at work

As a manager, it’s important that you have regular meetings with your employees. In these meetings it’s a good idea to ask about their wellbeing. 

If you suspect alcohol or drug misuse it’s really important that you raise the issue as soon as you can. Even then, it can be difficult to know what to say. 

If you dismiss someone because of drug or alcohol misuse without trying to help them, an employment tribunal may find that you’ve dismissed them unfairly.

Start by asking how they are and if anything is bothering them, then share your observations. Be sure to listen to what they tell you.

It’s important to approach the subject from a supportive standpoint rather than a judgmental one. Your employee may not want to admit that they have a problem so you’re more likely to get somewhere if they know you’re not going to condemn them. 

As long as they haven’t done anything that will mean dismissal, you can reassure them that your primary concern is for their wellbeing.

If the person is in a safety sensitive job, such as operating machinery or overseeing data security, you should intervene immediately. You may need to remove them from the job they’re doing. 

Do this with sensitivity: take the individual to a private office and have someone with you as a witness.

Drug and alcohol dependence are recognised medical problems and someone who is misusing drugs or alcohol has the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.

Employees with a drug or alcohol problem may ask you for help if they’re sure their problem will be dealt with discreetly and confidentially. 

  • Encourage them to get help from their GP or a specialist drug or alcohol agency and refer them to your organisation’s occupational health service or Employee Assistance Programme (if you have one).
  • Consider giving them time off to get expert help.
  • If their normal work is safety-critical, temporarily move them to another job.
  • If you haven’t already got one, develop a policy on drug and alcohol misuse. Include it as part of your overall health and safety policy. 

An effective policy should be helpful and supportive rather than lead to dismissal. But it should also highlight when you will take disciplinary or other action. For example, that you will report drug possession or dealing at work to the police straight away.

Why not increase awareness by including an explanation of the drug and alcohol misuse policy in your induction process for all new employees?

Download 'Alcohol and substance misuse'