Richard Cross introduces the work of the United Kingdom Addiction Services Support Agency
A report from the National Treatment Agency claims that the cost to industry from illegal drug use is £800 million each year. Furthermore, the Government’s “Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England” (Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit) says that “alcohol misuse among employees costs up to £6.4 billion in lost productivity through increased absenteeism, unemployment and premature death”.

Employers have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) to look after the health and wellbeing of their workforce. However, many seem ill equipped to deal with the ever-increasing problem of substance misuse and addiction within their organisations.

Working life can be a major source of stress, and it is a well-known fact that high levels of stress often exacerbate addiction problems. The preconception of the addict sat on a park bench is a myth that many people need to dispel. Modern companies need to realise that some of their highest performing staff also have the potential to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

It goes without saying that any employee in any role in any sector can develop an addiction based illness – if a company’s most important asset is its employees – where is the duty of care?

Employers are in a prime position to help the employee in guiding them into treatment. When a person develops an addiction to drugs or alcohol it is often the closest people to the addict that begin to notice the problem. Often people will spend more of their daily time with their employer than they do with their family. With this in mind the employer is in a key position to feel the effects of that person’s addiction problem first hand.

The current protocol seems to be that of a disciplinary nature. Rather than helping the employee to find help for their problems many employers take a very hard-nosed approach to the situation, often beginning to find conduct and performance reasons to document for and justify termination. Of course, we know that it is illegal to fire an individual because of a drug or alcohol problem but as the problem persists it can easily result in an incident that equates to gross misconduct – allowing the employer full rights to instant dismissal.

Many organisations take the approach that if an individual comes to them directly about their drug and alcohol problem the employer will adopt a sympathetic attitude. But in reality do many employers really know what to do in such a situation?

The United Kingdom Addiction Services Support Agency (UKASSA) believes that every company should adopt a professional approach to substance misuse in the workplace. We think that the average business response to an employee with an addiction problem can generally be quite unethical. Many employers will make the pretence that they care in order to cover themselves against allegations of unfair dismissal. But do they really understand the issue? Surely today with the understanding we have in the drug and alcohol treatment sector it is about time that we made more of a push to educate employers about what addiction really is and how best to deal with it.

Most employers want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that this issue simply has no effect on them or that it is not any of their business – but if it is affecting their business – surely it is their business?

As a former City worker with first hand experience of battling an addiction problem and then subsequent experience of working within the treatment sector I realised that in many organisations something important was missing. It became evident that most companies totally mismanage the problem and simply do not understand how best to deal with people suffering from addiction.

After some initial research it became very clear that with many organisations the HR processes just aren’t adequate to deal with this type of problem – a lot of companies simply treat addiction problems with disciplinary measures and there is no access to help and support. The fact is that many companies are totally ill equipped to deal with the problem effectively.

The key challenge is helping organisations to recognise the absolute fact that substance misuse problems have a substantial impact on their businesses in far more ways than being simply the direct effects on the health and wellbeing of the individual employee concerned. Companies really need to understand that the effort involved in tackling the issue is far outweighed by the risk and various problems that can be encountered by not having sufficient systems and measures in place.

It seems that many businesses are totally unaware of the simple fact that drug and alcohol concerns cost them money. Rates of absenteeism, workplace accidents, poor productivity and exposure to legal risk are just a few of the areas directly affected by drug and alcohol problems within the workforce.

With changing public perceptions regarding drug and alcohol addiction we think that it is about time that employers took responsibility for their employees – especially as so many of them put their employees under such huge amounts of pressure.

For those of us that work in the treatment sector – we know that addiction has no bearing on income, class, professional status, ethnicity, age or gender. The common misconception of the ‘profile’ of the ‘average’ drug addict needs to change drastically. We think that it is time the business world caught up and woke up to the fact that drug and alcohol problems are endemic in many firms. The use of stimulant drugs such as cocaine in the banking sector and within legal firms is very high indeed. Is this problem going to be taken seriously or has the usage of these types of drugs now become just an accepted part of professional culture and an acceptable feature in the modern business landscape?

Organisations in the manufacturing and production, transport and logistics and similar safety critical sectors also suffer huge consequences from employing individuals with drug and alcohol problems. Workplace accidents cost the UK economy over £4 billion per annum – it is estimated that in around 25% of these accidents, drugs and alcohol play a contributory factor. [CIPD, Managing Drug and Alcohol Misuse at Work, Survey Report September 2007]

There is obviously a very clear case for businesses to take more of an active role in dealing with addiction in the workplace. It is after all part of their corporate social responsibility agenda to be seen to be looking after their employees’ health and wellbeing. Not to mention the fact that it is beneficial for business performance and productivity whilst helping them to better manage their health and safety risks and levels of absenteeism.

In order to get this message across we need to be speaking their language – companies don’t generally respond well to the “softer” concepts around mental health and emotional wellbeing. We talk to them in terms of Human Resources, CSR, absenteeism, productivity, health and safety, legal risk, return-on-investment and the like. These are the issues that concern businesses and the only ones that they can relate to. If we are speaking their language we can then provide them with an understanding of what addiction really is, and why it is essential for them to have procedures in place.


What can businesses do to begin to tackle workplace drug and alcohol problems?


Everything must always start with the implementation of a workplace drug and alcohol policy. This policy should be explicitly outlined in the employment contract or alternatively, it can be clearly referenced in the employment contract with the content appended to the staff handbook.

There are a number of measures organisations should consider in order to develop a positive and effective addiction-management policy


  • Clearly set out the aims and objectives of the workplace drug and alcohol policy, ensuring that it is made very clear that the policy is intended as a supportive and non-discriminatory measure for the benefit and wellbeing of the workforce


  • Ensure that the policy clearly states who it applies to and explains any variations between employees


  • Define the types of substances covered by the policy and the distinction made between illegal substances and any prescription medication that may also impair levels of employee performance or safety


  • The policy needs to be set within the companies existing health and safety framework and disciplinary procedures and guidelines


  • Explain how employees with substance misuse problems will be treated by the organisation. What is the company policy on treatment? At what point and under what circumstances will disciplinary procedures come into force?


  • Prepare the groundwork for the provision of training services, ensuring adequate information and advice is given to line managers and supervisors who will be ultimately responsible for the implementation and management of the drug and alcohol policy


  • Raise awareness of all staff across the workforce of the potential adverse effects and dangers of substance misuse. Outlining how this can impact on both the workplace and individuals


  • Acceptance of the policy by the workforce is essential. Any cases of concern need to be dealt with in a supportive manner and on a highly confidential basis. In all cases including gross misconduct all employees should be at least offered the opportunity to engage with treatment services.


(The specific details of the policy and framework for the particular approach to drug and alcohol issues will of course always be unique to that organisation and the above is intended as a guideline only)


Are addictive personalities always a bad thing in the workplace?

The concept of the ‘work-aholic’ as a productive, efficient employee is a common misinterpretation. In fact, those with addictive personalities are more susceptible to stress, will in most cases have underlying psychological problems and are ultimately less likely to contribute positively to the workplace. Addiction and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors should not be confused with a single-minded approach to achieving targets, or heightened productivity. In short, addiction and substance misuse problems within a workforce will never have a positive trade-off.

An interesting subject, however, is the concept of the ‘highly functioning addict’. There is evidence to suggest that a small proportion of addicts are able to balance their problems with ferocious productivity and maintain an image of professionalism and competence. In a handful of circumstances this may well be the case, and this would therefore raise the question of whether an organisation should need or desire to become involved in the treatment of their employee’s problem. However, the productive facade of the highly functioning addict’s position is precarious and their contribution to commercial success will almost certainly falter. This is why a genuine duty of care should underpin all employee drug and alcohol policies, and the company’s approach to dealing with mental health and addiction issues should always come over and above the need to preserve the bottom line.


 The Author

Richard Cross (BA Hons)
Richard began his career in the commercial sector, gaining 6 years of experience in the marketing and recruitment industries. Building on his City career Richard has spent the last 3 years working in the addiction treatment services sector. Richard founded UKASSA in January 2011 He is the Managing Director of UKASSA and is currently training as a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist.