Working under the influence is a zero tolerance issue


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Last month, a nurse was last struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council for being drunk on duty. The story serves as a timely reminder for employers about how and when to act if workers are found to be carrying out their duties while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Alcohol is a serious workplace issue that has the potential to cause serious harm to other workers and incur significant costs associated with lost productivity and sickness.

In this recently reported case, it doesn't bear thinking about what might have happened to the patients under Sheila Fletcher's care at Hull Royal Infirmary.

On the cost side of things, a recent report published in the British Medical Journal has stated that alcohol is directly or indirectly responsible for 40% of workplace accidents and 17 million lost days of work per year, equating to a cost of £7.3 billion to the UK economy.

Many workplaces have some kind of alcohol and drug policy in place. This usually states that the company has a zero tolerance approach to the misuse of drugs or alcohol and employees should not report to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Even where such a policy doesn't exist, most employment contracts would carry a clause stating something similar. Some employers may have gone one step further by ensuring that if they suspect that an employee has come to work worse for wear, they can ask them to perform a 'for cause' test to detect the presence of drugs or alcohol. However, before selecting an employee to undergo such a test the employer would need to be able to prove that they have reasonable cause for suspicion.

The use of random drug and alcohol testing is a much more controversial area and seeking the agreement of employee representatives to introduce this kind of testing can be challenging. Many employers also consider random testing too costly to implement and they are more inclined to take this view if they have not experienced any drug or alcohol-related issues in the past.

Instead, a growing number of employers are choosing to focus on prevention by encouraging self-awareness and telling employees that they are prepared to help anyone who steps forward and owns up to having a drug or drink problem.

In such cases, employees are usually offered counselling and other support to help deal with the problem and their employment status is protected. The counter to this is that if employees fail to come forward and a problem comes to light later, it is more likely to be treated as a disciplinary matter which will often result in dismissal.

In cases where an employee is found drinking alcohol or taking drugs at work, the matter needs to be dealt with swiftly and with a certain amount of sensitivity. The first step would be to arrange a meeting with the individual to tell them that they have been seen drinking alcohol or taking drugs at work, or that the company has reasonable grounds to believe that they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work.

If contractual terms allow, a 'for cause' test could then be given. If the test is refused by the employee, the incident would be treated as a disciplinary matter, potentially leading to the individual's dismissal.

Alternatively, the employer may decide to treat the incident as a capability issue at the start, possibly because they believe it may be linked to alcoholism or depression, in which case they could request consent to consult GP records.

With the Christmas party season approaching, employers need to make their position with regard to drugs and alcohol crystal clear. It may be necessary to re-communicate workplace policies and remind employees about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour.

Regardless of the time of year, a zero tolerance approach should be adopted and it is important that the entire workforce understands the serious repercussions that could result if they cross the line.

Paula Whelan (pictured) is head of employment at law firm Shakespeares

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