Last reviewed 31 January 2022

Gudrun Limbrick considers what responsibility employers have to spot and tackle alcoholism among their employees.

There are very few areas of modern life, and very few groups of people, in which alcohol does not feature. For some companies, alcohol actually forms a part of working life, whether it is in terms of people gathering at lunchtime or after work to socialise, or whether people are expected to attend events and wine and dine customers. Sadly, alcoholism is a growing problem in all walks of life and those affected may need significant support if they are to fight their addiction successfully. The question is, what role can, or should, their employers play in this?

There has been a general rule that what people do outside work hours is not the business of their employer. This is important to protect employees and grant them the freedom they should have regardless of the work they are doing. By the same token, we spend a great deal of our waking hours at work and employers (and colleagues) can sometimes see issues develop (health, stress or otherwise) which family may not. It is also true to say some employees may not have a family or group of supportive friends and, for them, people at work may be their only option in case of problems.

An employer cannot be responsible for employees’ general health and wellbeing inside and outside of work. However, a healthy workforce is inevitably going to be easier to manage and more productive than one that is not. There is also a growing band of companies that go out of their way to offer support and resources to their employees to help them to improve their own health, wellbeing and fitness as a way of boosting morale and general employees’ wellbeing.

Legal consequences

While drinking alcohol is not illegal, nor is being addicted to alcohol, it is important to bear in mind that there are, of course, legal matters to consider. Many jobs, for example, include the need to drive as part of the role. In this work, it is a legal imperative that the employee is at all times below the legal alcohol limit. Any employer who has a suspicion that an employee who needs to drive may be over the legal drink-driving limit should tackle this immediately.

Initial conversations with the employee should be in private and, if necessary, alcohol testing can be carried out. Ideally, provision for this will be in the employee handbook but, even if it is not, an employer can still do the test with the consent of the individual if the employer has reasonable doubt that the individual will pass. Both the individual and the employer need to be very clear on the consequences of a failed test, or of a refusal to take a test. As an absolute minimum, the employee cannot be allowed to get into a vehicle at that point.

Health and safety

There may also be valid health and safety concerns even if driving is not part of the individual’s role. Should the individual be working with machinery, lifting heavy items or working with children and vulnerable adults, for example, alcohol use may be a significant factor in not only the safety of the particular individual but also the colleagues, customers, service users and members of the public around them.

There are two specific pieces of legislation which can come into effect here and affect the liability of the employer. The first is the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. This places a duty on an employer to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. The second is the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This makes it a duty for an employer to assess the risks to the health and safety of employees. This means employers can be prosecuted if they knowingly allow employees to continue working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and their behaviour places the employees themselves or others at risk. It is thus clear that employers who have suspicions of alcoholism or who have been told of other people’s suspicions must act immediately.

How can employers help?

By its very nature, alcoholism is proving to be one of the trickiest health issues to resolve. The hard fact of the matter is that it is not easy to “cure” an alcoholic. When an employer suspects alcohol use is to an unacceptable level in the workplace, the first thing to do is to remove the affected individuals for work in which they could prove to be a danger in their inebriated state. For some jobs, in some companies, this removal could prove to be permanent. If this is not the option followed, there are a number of steps an employer can take to help and support the individuals.

The first principle is to conduct all conversations with the individuals in private. As with any other health issue, alcoholics have the right not to have their problem revealed to their colleagues, or indeed family members. The ideal way forward is to draw up a plan in agreement with the individuals concerned. The employer has, perhaps, a bargaining tool which friends and family members do not have. The employer can “postpone” disciplinary proceedings if the individuals arrange a specific course of treatment for themselves. This means that the individuals have a very real incentive to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or see their GP, or pass every alcohol blood level test the employer gives them or whatever the agreed steps are. If they fail to do this, they will lose their job.

Any employer, to support them in this issue and to ensure that employees are aware of the consequences of their actions, should have a formal written policy on alcohol in the workplace (or, indeed, alcohol drunk before the employees arrive at work). Acas offers very useful advice for employers on this topic and also offers this advice: “Any alcohol or drugs policy should be used to ensure problems are dealt with effectively, and consistently and early on in the process. They should protect workers and encourage sufferers to seek help. An education programme for managers is particularly important: it could include details of signs to look for, how to deal with workers who seek help, and where expert advice and help may be obtained. Being able to direct your workers to help is an important step.”

One major issue of concern is the number of companies in which alcohol is a part of the working day either through the team socialising together or where work takes place around alcohol. It is very easy for an individual to develop a problem or mask a pre-existing alcohol problem in this sort of environment. In fact, some people may feel an obligation to drink in some situations if they are to keep in with their peers and bosses. In these situations, it is important that in writing the company policy on alcohol these issues are thought through and ensures that, for example, socialising and team building is encouraged while the issues of being inebriated at work are not swept under the carpet. The worst case scenario for an employer may not be failing to spot the problem of an employee but unwittingly being part of the cause.