The risks posed by employee substance abuse can be significant in businesses, potentially placing both the workforce and customers in danger. It is therefore crucial that employers are prepared to identify and fully respond to the issue of workplace drug use or addiction.

What is substance addiction?

Substance addition is defined as a strong psychological dependence on a drug or other agent, including alcohol. Addiction can have a significant impact upon both the physical and mental wellbeing of the person in question, affecting their ability to conduct daily activities and impairing their judgment. The individual will be likely to work at a much lower capacity while undertaking their job — potentially committing actions which could place themselves, or others, at risk. Employees in this situation are at a higher risk of turning up to work late, refusing to obey management instructions and even becoming abusive towards their colleagues or customers. While jobs which need to maintain a critically high level of safety, such as driving, machine operating and flying, are particularly at risk, addiction can be detrimental to the operation of any organisation.

There can be a number of reasons behind the development of an addiction but what is crucial to remember is that it is something that can arise at any point during an individual’s life. People can find themselves increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal, if they are going through a stressful time. Employers may be unsure of how best to approach this situation, but the first thing they should be aware of is that, fundamentally, addiction to alcohol or any other substance is not considered a disability under equality law and therefore does not receive any of the legal protections afforded by the Equality Act 2010. That said, an ongoing addiction, or the struggle to overcome it, can lead to the development of conditions which are considered a disability, such as depression. Furthermore, the addiction is not excluded from these protections if it is the result of the administration of medically prescribed drugs or other medical treatment.

Identifying the signs

The unfortunate truth is that employees who are struggling with substance addiction may not want to come forward. They may be embarrassed about their condition or concerned that such a disclosure could affect their future employment prospects. This makes it all the more important that business-owners are able to identify the signs that their employees are operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work and, as such, are potentially suffering from substance addiction. Common symptoms include the employee regularly missing deadlines, forgetting tasks, neglecting their appearance or avoiding supervisors, whilst more physical identifiers can be bloodshot eyes or their falling asleep while at work. Maybe the employee smells of alcohol after they have returned from lunch or have been seen to change the people they are spending time with. Some of these displays could be explained by other factors unrelated to drug use, such as personal problems outside of the workplace. It is therefore important for employers to conduct an investigation in line with any drug and alcohol policies that they have in place prior to taking any action.

Drug and alcohol policies

The first step employers should take in tackling this issue is to introduce a workplace drugs and alcohol policy, which can outline how the company will support employees in this position while also stating it is unacceptable to be under the influence or in possession of certain materials while at work . It should contain information on how employers will respond to these situations and how this could lead to the implementation of a disciplinary procedure. That said, the policy should also specifically dictate the options available for employees who are struggling with addiction. It should outline that the company strongly encourages employees with an addiction to come forward, that it will remain sympathetic to their situation and that it will assist them in getting the help and support they need, which may include direction to external specialists.

It may also be advisable to include a clause which gives the employer the right to carry out random drug tests and searches to see if employees are complying with the policy. It should be specified that the purpose is to maintain the wellbeing of the workforce, with the aim of confirming suspicions that an employee is operating under the influence and taking steps to work against this. Tests should be undertaken on a random basis with no prior warning and employees should be given the opportunity to declare any medication they are on which may interfere with the result. It should also be noted that if the test is positive, or if an employee refuses to take the test, they may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

Responding to substance abuse

In situations where an employer is directly informed by its employee that they believe they are struggling with addiction, careful steps should be taken to provide them with further support. Alongside any external counselling services, the employee’s role could also be adjusted on a temporary basis as there may be certain aspects of their job that are causing them undue stress. Employers could also refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Programme that offers impartial, confidential counselling. This should be approached in a non-judgmental and reasonable manner and all managers should be fully trained on the best methods for dealing with this situation. It is crucial to remember that, if the addiction is proven to be the cause of a disability, poor management of this situation could lead to a discrimination claim.

If the employer suspects an employee is operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they have not disclosed that they have some sort of addiction, it should conduct an objective investigation and implement a random testing procedure if provided for in its policies. It may be necessary to ask an employee who is intoxicated to leave the premises if they are incapable of doing their job. A fact-finding investigation meeting should then be held with the employee in order to discuss the situation. If necessary, at this point, a disciplinary procedure can then be implemented as a way of monitoring the employee and observing whether they show any improvement going forward. Remember that failure to act in this situation could send the wrong message to employees that turning up to work in this condition is acceptable.


Employers should always remember that they have a legal duty to protect the health and welfare of their employees. While drug or alcohol abuse can be a difficult issue for employers to manage, they should still be prepared to approach this consistently and offer appropriate support to employees if necessary. This can be essential in ensuring the retention and continued good relations with a workforce.

For more information see our Drugs and Alcohol topic.

Seek further advice

If you would like to provide your employees with access to confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider: 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 18 September 2019