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Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking

8th August 2018

Business in the Community and Public Health England have published a toolkit to help employers support their staff to make healthier choices around alcohol, drugs and tobacco use. It’s a useful workplace health resource, but it is also important to be building on the foundation of clear and well-communicated smoking, drug and alcohol policies.

Employee health and wellbeing – clarity is the key in tackling smoking, drugs and alcohol at work

Business in the Community and Public Health England (PHE) have published a toolkit designed to help employers and occupational health teams better support their staff in making healthier choices about alcohol, drugs and tobacco use.

The toolkit suggests actions employers can take to help staff overcome reliance on these substances and how they can support them if they need to take time off work to get over their addiction.

Dr Justin Varney, national lead for adult health and wellbeing at PHE, said at the launch of the toolkit: “A healthy business needs a healthy workforce, and we spend one third of our adult life in work, so employers are in a unique position to help their teams stay well. This toolkit gives requested advice to businesses on how to help employees deal with addiction and substance misuse sensitively and appropriately.”

The toolkit includes:

  • A clear, staged checklist of actions for employers of all sizes
  • An adaptable framework for a Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco policy
  • A summary of key legislation relating to drugs and alcohol use in England
  • Case studies from a range of organisations

What, then, should employers make of this?

Cost to economy of drugs, alcohol and smoking

First, it is clearly a useful addition to an employer’s health, safety and wellbeing armoury, given that, as PHE has highlighted, in England an estimated 301,000 potential years of life were lost because of alcohol in 2015, with an economic impact of as much as £7.3bn a year.

In addition, smoking costs employers £5.3bn through increased sickness absence and smoking breaks, and two thirds of smokers say they want to stop, but many fail to do so without adequate support, PHE has argued. An estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are addicted to prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Equally important is the fact the toolkit can potentially help to break through the barrier of employers thinking (at least outside of the safety-critical arena) “it isn’t our place to interfere”.

Employers may not traditionally see alcohol, drug or tobacco use as part of their responsibility yet, as the figures above show, there is potentially a huge cost to business.

Importance of clear policies

However, a toolkit such as this should not be seen as a panacea. Any workplace smoking, drugs and alcohol approach has to be underpinned by clear, and clearly communicated, policies covering all three areas. After all, employees need to know what the parameters are, what is acceptable or not, as do managers if they are to enforce them.

There may also need to be a process of organisational health and wellbeing self-reflection, especially around the role and use of alcohol.

For example, how much is alcohol an integral networking, reward and relationship management element of your organisation? And, if so, is this appropriate in this day and age? Is any drinking culture potentially excluding of those who either can’t or choose not to drink?

Similarly, with smoking it is important to address and discuss where vaping and e-cigarettes sit within your scheme of things. And how do you manage employee smoking breaks in terms of lost productivity and disruption – do you indulge them or limit them?

Finally, with drugs, if you’re not working within a safety-critical environment, do you screen for drug use and, if so, do you have well-understood protocols and procedures in place for how to respond to a positive sample?

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health explains: “If you’re not careful, alcohol, drugs and smoking can become something of an employee and workplace health minefield. Any policy or screening programme has to be the result of careful and considered thought, consultation and conversation, with a clear understanding of consequences and sanctions.

“And your policies – whatever approach you decide to take – have to be the foundation of your approach to drugs, smoking and alcohol. Everything builds from there – screening, enforcement, health and wellbeing support and so on. To that end, a tool such as the one produced by PHE and BITC is a valuable additional resource – but within the context of clearly laid out and well-communicated policy.”