what are the legal issues when dealing with addiction in the workplace?

Addiction in the workplace can present significant challenges for employers and specific instances of drug or alcohol use can present health and safety risks, and serious conduct issues – all of which will fall to HR to navigate. And the path is littered with potential pitfalls.

Use of drugs or alcohol is frequently related to other health issues, both physical and mental, which is a further reason the issue needs to be dealt with sensitively by employers.

In the UK, employees who are disabled under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”), are protected from discrimination and harassment. A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on someone’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Addiction is expressly excluded from the definition of disability, unless it arose as a result of taking medically prescribed drugs or other medical treatment. This exclusion might make employers think that they can disregard disability discrimination when dealing with employees with an addiction, but it is not that straightforward.

Addiction may cause a condition which is itself a disability, or, may present because of an underlying disability. The courts will examine closely the reason for the treatment of the employee and whether it was because of the underlying disability, or the addiction.

Addiction frequently appears as an underlying cause in circumstances of misconduct, absenteeism and poor performance.

If there is any suggestion that drinking, for example, is as a result of stress, anxiety or depression, or there was an adverse effect due to medication, the employer should consider obtaining a medical report to understand the medical position before proceeding with any disciplinary sanction.

Even where there is no disability present, if the employee suffers from a substance addiction and that has contributed to their behaviour, employers should consider carefully their options before moving to dismiss. The ACAS guide to discipline and grievances at work suggests that consideration be given to measures to help those employees suffering from drug or alcohol abuse and failing to, at least, consider what help could be put in place as an alternative to a disciplinary sanction, may affect the reasonableness of any sanction.

Even in the seemingly straightforward situation of an employee presenting for work drunk or under the influence of drugs, dismissal may not be a fair response. Whilst being drunk or under the influence of drugs is likely to constitute misconduct, or gross misconduct justifying dismissal, an employer can’t automatically assume that there will be grounds for termination.

In McElroy v Cambridgeshire the Employment Tribunal held that the summary dismissal of a healthcare assistant for coming to work smelling of alcohol was unfair and not the actions of a reasonable employer in the absence of evidence. But, in another case, where the employee was found in possession of cannabis at work, dismissal was reasonable – Asda v Coughlan. The fact that the substance is legal or illegal is likely to be a relevant factor for the employer to take into account in determining sanction.

It may also be appropriate in some circumstances to suspend disciplinary action where alcohol or drugs have been a factor, on the condition that the employee follows a suitable course of action, such as rehabilitation.

What is clear is that just because drugs or alcohol are involved, it doesn’t negate the need for thorough investigation, just like any case of alleged misconduct or poor performance.

The Act provides protection for employees from discrimination arising from disability. For example, an employee is underperforming and has a substance abuse problem which has resulted in the employee suffering from severe depression. The employer should not simply discipline or dismiss the employee for their poor performance, even if that performance is below the standard expected of them in their role. If the employer charges forward with action against the employee, and it transpires that the cause of the underperformance is their depression, then the employer may have committed an act of disability discrimination.

This will not mean that someone with a substance abuse issue who suffers from depression will always be so protected – the act (prompting the potential disciplinary action) itself must happen because of something arising in consequence of the disability.

Employers could consider offering the employee time off to seek medical help. If doing this, it is important to consider how that employee will return to work. Advice should be taken from the employee’s treating physician. There may be need for a phased return – especially when the addiction arose due to something related to work, extreme stress for example and, in such circumstances, consideration must be given to what else might be done for the employee, within reason, to prevent the situation reoccurring.

Employers should consider including relevant policies in their staff handbook. For example, appropriately worded disciplinary policies, a health and safety policy and a drug and alcohol misuse policy, including any drug testing provisions which apply.

Employers should also consider the type of support they may wish to offer those suffering with addiction issues, including time off, medical treatment and support packages.


Although addiction is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, which protects people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace, this doesn’t mean that dismissing someone with an addiction will always fall outside the Act. A dismissal could be still be considered discriminatory if there is an underlying or related issue amounting to a disability and reasonable steps were not taken either to establish this, or to provide adequate support for the employee.


Interested in inclusion in the workplace? we recommend the Diversity and Inclusion for HR Professionals training day.





Sarah Chilton is an employment and partnership lawyer with CM Murray LLP, and is speaking about “Addiction in the workplace: corporate risk, human frailty and legal arguments” at iCAAD London 2019. https://www.icaad.com/icaad-london-2019