Opinion: Tackling staff alcohol abuse

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Alcohol abuse is a very real concern in areas where public safety may be compromised, including airports. Emma Horner, HR and recruitment director at OdiliaClark, outlines some of the warning signs of abuse and outlines how best to tackle it.

Alcohol abuse can affect people from all walks of life and does not discriminate. Signs that a member of staff may have problems with alcohol abuse may include: a lack of interest in previously normal activities; appearing tired, unwell or irritable; becoming secretive or dishonest; a decline in the quality of work; and increased lateness or absenteeism. In the more extreme cases, the person affected may even request an advance in pay.

Triggers for alcohol abuse differ for each person, but may include stress, emotional triggers (positive or negative), physical or mental illness, unfamiliar situations such as new jobs, and loneliness.

How to tackle alcohol abuse in a member of staff
If an airport suspects that an employee has a problem with alcohol or drugs, it is important to deal with this sensitively. Best practice is to request a meeting with the employee in conjunction with the HR department. Try to avoid too many people being in the meeting so the employee does not feel as if they are being victimized.

Gather some evidence prior to the meeting. This could involve previous attendance records and performance reviews to compare with current records if there has been a recent decline in performance.

During the meeting:

  • Ask the employee if they have any issues inside or outside the workplace that could be contributing to any stress they may be feeling. Ask if the company can do anything to help to reduce any stress;
  • Be aware that the employee may feel under threat or in denial and could potentially become angry or anxious at the situation;
  • To avoid an employee feeling as if they are being personally attacked, try to stick to facts such as ‘The smell of alcohol has been noticed on you before this meeting’ or address any incidences of absenteeism;
  • If the employee’s quality of work has been affected, address this with facts and explain that the company is willing to help the employee to improve their performance at work;
  • Express concern for the employee and encourage the employee to seek help either through their GP or Occupational Health (if available);
  • Remind the employee that there is help available and that the company is willing to assist with any problems through services such as counselling, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or rehabilitation;
  • Provide details of any assistance they may be able to receive (this could be signposting an employee to local/national charities or services.

How to draw up a drugs and alcohol management program
Putting together a drugs and alcohol management program is incredibly complex and best tackled in three parts:

The policy:
There is a lot to consider when implementing a drugs and alcohol policy management program – the company’s policy acts as its protection when considering approaches to drugs and alcohol management and should define all aspects of company behavior. A company should consult with its employees and unions (if applicable) in the first instance. It is important that employees and unions understand the rationale behind implementing a drugs and alcohol policy and testing program and that managers are trained to implement the policy as required. A clear policy detailing what an employer expects with consistent application is imperative if a company wishes to avoid any future legal challenges.

Some companies may wish to categorize different sets of employees in different ways. For example, safety-sensitive workers are more often subject to random testing than office workers due to the element of risk in a safety-sensitive role. Consideration must also be given to how a company wishes to deal with incidences with contractors vs permanent workers.

A company must decide whether they want to carry out the following types of testing: pre-employment testing, which helps new employees to understand that the company does not tolerate alcohol and substance misuse; ‘for cause’ testing, following an accident/incident or upon suspicion that an employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and unannounced, random testing.

The approach:
Companies should consider whether they wish to carry out testing in-house or outsource this to a reputable testing provider. There are pros and cons for each option. In-house testing enables a company to fully manage the testing process and they can easily carry out their own trend analysis to inform future prevention training, testing programs and rehabilitation.

Outsourced testing can be preferential to in-house testing, especially in the case of random testing. If a company wishes to outsource its testing program, it should ask the testing provider among other things for any certifications and accreditations they may hold, how they recruit and train their testing associates, how they can guarantee availability of stock, the reliability of testing equipment and the rate of false-negative and false-positives related to each piece of equipment.

The equipment
A testing provider should be able to explain what each piece of equipment tests for and how it does this (for instance, detection levels for each substance, how the equipment can be serviced and calibrated etc.)

When thinking about the testing process, consideration should be given to how a company wishes to deal with any employees who do not consent to testing or who withdraw from the process. The same consideration should also be given to employees who provide a positive drugs or alcohol result. Employees should be offered help to deal with any problems with substance abuse.

Communicating your policy
A company should not rely solely on a testing program and rehabilitation services. We recommend that companies communicate the policy four weeks before implementation to the workforce with employee roadshows, team meetings and regular emails so that all employees are aware of what it involves. This four-week period can also act as an amnesty period in which employees can speak with HR or line managers if they are struggling with any substance misuse issues. Regular sessions should be implemented in a training program for the discussion of the potential dangers of substance misuse. Research has shown that prevention training is valuable when dealing with employees who are struggling with substance misuse rather than simply relying on employee assistance programs after an incident.

UK-based OdiliaClark specializes in HR, recruitment, and drugs and alcohol testing.

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