What impact do drugs, alcohol and mental health have on employment?

By Rightnow289 · Jun 12, 2009 · Updated Jun 12, 2009 ·
  1. Rightnow289
    As National Tackling Drugs Week passes, The HR and Training Journal gets five specialists' views on how employers can offset the damage created to both employee and employer from substance abuse

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    Jeremy Hardie, Commissioner for the UK, Drug Policy Commission
    The Welfare Reform Bill currently working its way through parliament will introduce a new focus on benefit claimants who have problems with drugs – particularly heroin and crack cocaine. This group is thought to make up about 7% of those on out-of-work benefits, and the government has recognised that they will need a combination of drug treatment and other support such as training to get them job-ready. Finding work for problem drug users will not just reduce the burden on the welfare state; it is often considered to be an important component of a person's recovery from drugs, helping them to rebuild their lives and shed their 'addict' identity.

    The problem is that, once recovering drug users are fit to work, employers are often reluctant to give them a fair chance. A recent survey for the UK Drug Policy Commission found two-thirds of employers would not recruit former heroin or crack cocaine users even if they are otherwise suitable for the job. Even among those who would, many have an arbitrary 'two-years drug free' rule that has to be met before they would be considered.

    If we are going to make serious headway in reducing drug addiction, employers must be prepared to consider hiring suitable candidates who are recovering from a history of drug problems. This means helping employers to manage any additional risks – both perceived and real. This might come in the shape of work placements, job coaching schemes or access to HR and addictions infor-mation. Employers might even need incentives to encourage engagement with people who have been unemployed for extended periods.

    As employers, we also need to adjust our attitudes to recovering drug users, and challenge our prejudices. Although addiction isn't covered by discrim-ination legislation, if drug users have the responsibility to engage with treatment and rebuild their lives, they surely ought to be treated fairly by employers and the wider community to allow them the best chance of recovery. Moreover, it makes business sense. Through schemes such as Local Employment Part-nerships, there are many examples where employers have hired someone with a history of drug problems and found them to be more loyal and hard-working than other members of staff – perhaps because for them, it is not just a job; it is a key part of their recovery.

    During a recession it may be tempting to ignore this problem, but if we let hard-to-employ groups drift even further from the job market, it is not just individuals who will find it harder to recover, but the economy and society at large.

    The UK Drug Policy Commission's report 'Working Towards Recovery: Getting Problem Drug Users into Jobs' is free to download at www.ukdpc.org.uk/publications.shtml#Work

    Gill Trevelyan, Head of Good Practice Services, ACAS
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    Employees with a drink or drugs problem are likely to have higher absence levels than their colleagues. A manager should focus on how an employee's addiction is affecting their performance and how they can get to the root of the problem. Many employers use similar methods to deal with drug and alcohol abuse. For example, some organisations now treat drug and alcohol dependence as an illness and frame policies aimed at rehabilitation.

    The purpose of any alcohol or drugs policy is to ensure problems are dealt with effectively and consistently. They should protect workers and encourage sufferers to seek help.

    There are legal obligations for employers under common law and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, The Transport and Works Act 1992 and The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. You can read more about these in Acas' advisory booklet, Health, Work and Wellbeing available to view at www.acas.org.uk.

    Dealing with a drugs or drink problem:
    • Keep accurate, confidential records of instances of poor performance or other problems;
    • Interview the worker in private;
    • Concentrate on the instances of poor performance that have been identified;
    • Ask for the worker's reasons for poor performance and question whether it could be due to a 'health' problem, without specifically mentioning alcohol or drugs in the first instance;
    • If appropriate, discuss the organis-ation's alcohol and drugs policy and the help available inside or outside the organisation;
    • Agree future action;
    • Consider use of occupational health;
    • Arrange regular meetings to monitor progress and discuss any further problems if they arise.

    Brendan Barber, General Secretary, TUC

    Whenever you talk of drug and alcohol policies it almost always comes down to the issue of 'drug testing'. Alcohol and drug testing at work has been continually in the news, but testing workers is not a magic solution to a serious workplace problem.

    A number of recent press reports have suggested UK companies have a growing appetite for drug and alcohol tests, but in reality there seems to be very little use outside 'safety critical' industries. Partially this is because of their cost, partially human rights considerations, but, more importantly, because of doubts over their effective*ness. Accuracy issues aside, a drugs test will not tell you whether someone is under the influence of drugs – simply what they may have been doing at the weekend. Testing will not reveal the possible workplace causes of drug or alcohol misuse such as stress, or long or irregular hours.

    For employers there are two issues. The first is whether someone is working under the influence of drugs or alcohol in such a way as they pose a risk to themselves or others. The second is whether they have a long-term drug or alcohol problem that is affecting their health or performance. Good employers recognise now that the best approach is to treat drug and alcohol use problems in the workplace as sickness or capability and not disciplinary issues.

    The TUC says a drugs and alcohol policy should be comprehensive and should ensure workers feel confident to report rather than hide problems. It is important that employers and union representatives address the issue in a non-judgemental way.

    Every employer should have a policy on dealing with the issue and unions should be involved in developing and implementing these policies.

    Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

    Considering how much of our lives we spend at work, it is unsurprising that the relationship between mental health and employment is significant. Employment can help promote good mental and emotional wellbeing, but can also act as a trigger for mental distress. Whether you have an existing mental health issue or not, long hours, sustained pressure, and poor management and working relationships can all take their toll on mental health. It's thought three in 10 employees will have a mental health problem in any given year, yet fewer than one in 10 employers have a mental health policy to help staff sustain good mental health.

    We all need a bit of pressure at work to keep us motivated, but when pressure is extreme and unrelieved, employees can become frustrated and exhausted, and develop symptoms of stress and depression. Employers should discourage people from working excessive hours, and where an employee is experiencing stress or any other mental health issue consider making flexible working available to them. On a day-to-day level, staff need to know what is expected of them and have clearly defined responsibilities. Employers should also consider offering on-site wellbeing support, such as a counselling service, or invest in an off-site employee assistance programme. Relationships with line managers can make all the difference, and a supportive relationship, with enough supervision and help managing workload, can help people with mental distress.

    British men work some of the longest hours in Europe and as Mind has highlighted in its current men's mental health campaign 'Get it off your chest', in comparison to women, men are given less support from their line managers, have higher work demands and are more likely to report that their employer has undertaken no recent initiative to reduce stress in the workplace. It's important that employers consider gender bias and men's mental health needs when assessing whether they are doing enough to promote a mentally healthy workplace.

    Paul Hayes, Chief Executive, National Treatment Centre

    Given that around a third of the working-age population have used drugs at some point in their lives, it is reasonable to assume that some of your staff have too. Therefore, hoping that problems of this sort will never arise is unrealistic, and having a workplace drugs and alcohol policy in place is the first step to dealing with this sensitive area.

    Out of those who have ever used drugs, very few will become addicted, but there is help available for those who need it. If you know that one of your employees is misusing drugs or alcohol, you should encourage them to see their GP.

    There is strong evidence that having opportunities to work whilst receiving treatment improves an individual's chance of overcoming dependency. In fact, the government is investing in the link between work and overcoming dependency by creating new co-ordinators in every Jobcentre Plus district in England to enable clients with substance misuse problems to access drug treatment as well as get the training and skills development they need for work.

    Employers may be reluctant to employ people with alcohol and drug problems; however, on the whole, we hear positive accounts of enthusiastic and motivated workers who are keen to rebuild their lives, learn new skills and make a practical and valued contribution. Equally, the security, routine and responsibility that work provides can be a much-needed source of motivation to recover.

    There is no 'one size fits all' solution to dependency, or an easy cure. Having a job with a supportive employer can make a world of difference.

    For more information about drug treatment and employment, visit www.nta.nhs.uk/areas/employment/default.aspx.

    The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA) was set up in 2001 to improve the capacity, availability and effectiveness of drug treatment in England. It has since taken responsibility for young people's drug and alcohol treatment in England.

    Source - http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=12169

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