Date: 01/09/20 | Duration: 00:30:27

Over a quarter of people say their alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. Yet recent CIPD research has found a fifth of businesses don’t offer proactive support to employees for drug and alcohol misuse. So at what point do concerns of drug and alcohol misuse become an issue for employers and how can people professionals and line managers best support their teams?

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Professor Dame Carol Black, Simon Jones and Dr Jill Miller, as they look beyond the stigma of alcohol and drug misuse and discuss why organisations need to prioritise it as a health and wellbeing issue.

Nigel Cassidy: What can we and what should we do to help colleagues turning to drink and drugs to get through the working day? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast. 

It’s true most of us are stressed to some degree with the ever present worries of a new autumn wave of the pandemic and the UK well into official recession it’s no wonder that studies show we’re drinking more. That's true of furloughed workers especially. Others turn to pills, prescription or otherwise. Pleasant habits can become props. All the signs are this is going to get worse. We need to quickly understand how employment conditions do seem to be playing a part in driving workers to misuse alcohol and drugs. But when and how is it appropriate to intervene and what testing and support should be readied and provided by employers through their people managers? 

Well with me Professor Dame Carol Black who’s advised the government on health, work and wellbeing. She authored an independent review into employment outcomes of drug or alcohol addiction four years ago and has continued to advise governments in this area. Hello.

Carol Black: Great to be with you.

NC: We’ve Simon Jones who’s had long experience in senior personnel and people management roles in public transport and large organisations. He's co-authored the CIPD’s very latest managing drug and alcohol misuse guidance and is a director of Ariadne Associate. Hello.

Simon Jones: Hello

NC: And from the home team the CIPD’s own senior diversity and inclusion adviser Dr Jill Miller who works closely with policymakers, officials and HR professionals. Hello to you.

Jill Miller: Hi there.

NC: Now Carol Black in those halcyon days BC, before COVID, most of us looked forward to an after work drink or two, maybe near the office, now clearly we’re all taking our drugs of choice mainly at home. It’s how millions of us deal with stress or anxiety isn't it, but from an employer's point of view can we say when those personal habits move from being a private issue to one for employers?

CB: If it interferes or impinges on your work then obviously it’s a matter for the employer, but I think it goes beyond that. I think most employers, or good employers want to have a well and contented and healthy workforce and this is a whole area that's been swept under the carpet. So it’s not one, we talk about mental health at work now very easily, it’s something we try to do something about openly, positively, CEOs talk about maybe the depression they had or their period of anxiety because so often with drugs and alcohol because of the stigma the employers, if anything, are a little bit defensive and I want to see drug and alcohol problems treated like a health condition, so that you would treat the employee as you’d treated somebody who had diabetes. You would be proactive and positive. I think the report will go a long way to help us get there.

NC: One in 11 adults have taken a drug in the last year, that's 3.2 million people, it’s a lot it’s one in five for 16 to 24 year olds. And is there something about how we’ve been forced to work for most of this year that is somehow fuelling the increase in this kind of dependency?

SJ: I think there may well be an element of that, I mean the whole lockdown situation has made it quite difficult for people, people who have been furloughed are effectively sitting around with nothing very easy to open a bottle of wine or perhaps in some cases take some sort of substance. Equally those who are working, working from home they don't have the social interaction with colleagues and they sometimes need that prop to help them. I mean I'm aware of some people who are working probably far longer hours that they would do because they’re at home, they’ve got distractions perhaps with childcare or whatever so they’re working late into the night. And it’s understandable in that respect that they’re using some of the other ways of relaxing if you like because there aren’t other options open to them.

NC: But Jill Miller it is a kind of moot point isn't it as to whether it’s employers essentially who are responsible for this, I mean life is stressful, work can be difficult, so what’s your sense of the extent to which employers are responsible for people’s wellbeing here, particularly when life is difficult under COVID?

JM: I think I’d echo Carol’s earlier point to say that forward thinking and responsible employers are thinking about the wellbeing of their staff. They’re having a drugs and alcohol policy in place, they’re reminding people, especially during these really difficult times that Simon’s outlined of the kind of support that can be available. But I think this does raise that really important point of this is now just a disciplinary issue of when we’re talking about drug and alcohol misuse, this is a real central wellbeing issue. And I think even though there's going to be circumstances where disciplinary action may be necessary it shouldn’t necessarily be the default position whenever substance abuse is identified. I think a concern for an individual’s wellbeing really should be the priority whatever the formal action being taken.

NC: So you’re implying there Jill that there has to be some kind of policy in place which is clear, that people can see?

JM: Yeah I think we would definitely recommend that employers do have a drug and alcohol misuse policy in place and I think that should reflect the balance we’re talking about between the need for any disciplinary action that sets clear expectations about employee behaviour and the consequences of contravening that. But also it’s got to prioritise this genuine support of wellbeing because I think if people see that angle they’re more likely to come forward, disclose an issue and that's when employers can take that preventative action, offering them support, signposting them to professional help, because employers mainly aren’t placed to provide that support themselves they need to be signposting externally and enabling people to get professional support. And I think there's clear benefits for doing that.

CB: I mean the real worry to me is the big increase in powder cocaine in the young, 19 to 24 year olds is the biggest increase. It’s usually the young, white male where it’s increasing now, just to come back in a way to what you've just mentioned, that is often under the radar, maybe only once a week, maybe about 10% will take it daily. It’s a worry that it is absolutely a statistical increase as well as cannabis, which of course a lot of people do and have used. But when you’re working from home there are lots of competing factors in your life aren’t there? I mean you may well, well if you’re a woman you’ve probably been doing the schooling, you've been doing the housework and you've been trying to hold the family together. You may have some caring responsibilities and you've been trying to do a job. I think for quite a lot of people, and I'm sure for some men, their income may have been affected, there may be financial worries, there may be lack of sleep or quality of sleep. This has all maybe become just too much and either you may find it much easier at the end of the day when you’re actually in your own home just to have that extra glass of wine or think some sort of pill, whether it’s a prescribed pill or a not prescribed pill,  may be helpful. And you may think you can control it, I think, which is interesting. You may think this is just temporary, don't need to do anything about it. But I think as has just been said if the employer can make known that there are policies and there is support and if you have got a problem if you can only find a manager who’s been well trained and can understand these issues, and that's a really important point, you can start to do something about it.

NC: It’s interesting you’re starting to mention specific drugs of choice, or indeed they may not be a choice but people get sucked into using, particular drugs, I saw quite a useful list, it turned up in a report I saw about the 600 soldiers and reservists who were discharged last year after testing positive for illicit substances, of course clearly these were people who were at work who were turning to drugs, mostly cocaine which I think leaves the body within a couple of days, followed by, as you say, cannabis, ecstasy, ketamine, steroids, benzodiazepines, I mean this list goes on, Simon Jones what’s your experience tell you about how people get suckered into using some of these products and the sort of approaches that employers take when they find out this is going on? 

SJ: Well I think, to take the second question first, I think the natural reaction of most employers historically has been to take it as a disciplinary matter and I think that's where we need to be kind of moving the conversation and the debate away from that. I think the big issue really is that certainly managers, HR managers, are much less aware of the impact of drugs. There tends to be a perception of the media stereotypes of what a drug user  looks like, and from that point of view people don't understand the impacts and the effects and as you say some drugs are through the system very quickly, others hang around for a long while, can have a long impact, whereas alcohol I think we’re all a bit more familiar with because it’s legal, it’s much more socially acceptable, so we know what the symptoms are, the signs are, what we should be looking for etc. etc. And I think just to build on something Carol said earlier it’s interesting that, I think I read a statistic that around a third of young people 16 to 24 year olds don't drink these days but they are far more likely to be taking some sort of substance, maybe smoking a joint of cannabis or whatever. And I think that's something that certainly managers need to be much more aware of. They need to educate themselves much more in the effects of drugs, the types of symptoms to look out for and to consider it, as we’ve been saying throughout, much more as a wellbeing issue.

NC: Well Jill you've already made this point that you feel this is a welfare question not, as we’ve been hearing, a disciplinary one, so if employers are going to be proactive take us a bit of a stage further, other than having policies in place how do they start intervening? They may just get a report that somebody’s performance is down, or somebody may have told them something, how do you get involved, particularly when somebody is not physically in the office?

JM: Well I think to start with I’d say that there's a whole host of scenarios that line managers and HR are going to be faced with, are going to have to deal with and this comes from things like one-off incidents, accidents where it’s suspected someone might be under the influence. We’ve talked about under-performance as well where someone might be struggling. Or it could just be general concerns about someone’s wellbeing. But I think across the whole host of scenarios where an issue is suspected it should be addressed because of what we’re talking about with the wellbeing nature of things. And it may be that disciplinary action is needed. It might be a key safety concern as well but we need to make sure we’re dealing with things in the appropriate way and that will very much depend on the circumstances and the context in which things happen.

NC: And just remind us of the legal position, you can't force somebody to take a test can you?

SJ: Certain industries it’s a requirement, for example the railways, airlines etc. it is a requirement as part of the employment conditions that people are tested regularly. 

NC: And in fact Simon that does highlight the point that maybe the need to intervene or how you intervene is going to vary according to the industry or sector that you work in?

SJ: I think that's right in most of the case, I think as Jill highlighted earlier anything that’s safety-critical you have to take a far more proactive approach to choices like that. You mentioned earlier that I used to work in public transport and one of the things that we used to have as a company rule was you couldn’t drink within eight hours of starting your shift if you were a driver. Now that meant in some cases if you were on the early morning shift you couldn’t go to the pub with your mates the previous evening and we would, on occasions if there was any suggestion that somebody had been we would test people or take them off the road and suspend them. Now that's obviously because of the safety nature and you wouldn’t apply that necessarily in every environment, you have to consider the safety aspects. If somebody appears to be in a condition where they can't work safely then obviously you'd have to take action there and then.

NC: Now Carol Black I don't know whether you saw the other day the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor, Shaun Bailey, was urging larger businesses to routinely test their staff for narcotics, is that a practical suggestion? Is it even workable for employers to test people?

CB: I'm not sure whether it’s workable but I don't think that's a route any of us would really want to go down. I mean surely, just building on what Simon says, your best chance of helping somebody with these problems is early on. So you want an environment at work where the person will say, ‘I'm in a safe environment I can go to my line manager, I can say I've got a problem. I will be signposted, helped.’ There may be something even within the company, in a people programme that is suitable. It may need more. It’s that early intervention with any condition you can think of, whether it’s drugs, alcohol excess, whether it’s cancer, getting in there early with the right approach is your best chance of helping someone so they don't have problems later on and I haven’t looked at Twitter to see the response to that article in The Times but I would imagine that it’s been quite vivid. I would think so.

JM: Yeah I think a central theme about what we’re talking about here is the key role of line managers and employees feeling they can approach their line manager to discuss an issue or to ask for some support. And I think, given the whole host of situations that line managers could face and need to deal with they need to feel really capable and confident to do that. They need to have that training, as well as the support from HR to deal with some really tricky issues. But our CIPD survey actually found that just 12% of organisations provide one-off training to line managers, and just a quarter, so 25%, provide regular training. If we go a bit further than that, just a third invest in improving management practice, so really supporting managers in how to effectively manage and support people more generally. And that's despite HR professionals telling us that developing line managers’ capability is the really effective way of preventing drug and alcohol misuse. So I think we would urge employers really to be investing here in their line managers, given that they have such a pivotal role.

SJ: Yes I’d agree. I think in one sense there's a danger that it could be just another thing that we have to train line managers in. And I think it’s probably better in some respects if we think of it as part of our overall line manager development, their management styles, their approachability, if you like their willingness to lead the team effectively and to recognise when team members have issues and problems, it doesn’t have to be necessarily drugs and alcohol it could be a personal issue, it could be anything really, but it’s about developing that empathetic style I think is the key thing, rather than just saying, oh well today it’s equality and diversity, tomorrow it’s drugs and alcohol, the day after it’s mental health, or whatever, it’s rather than boxing things off like that looking at it much more from a management style point of view. I was also going to add I think just to build on Jill’s comment, I think one of the things, particularly with this area is that HR people need to educate themselves as well. There's a lot of lack of knowledge in the HR profession about things like drugs and alcohol and we can't really support line managers or expect them to be alert to potential problems if we ourselves don't know a great deal about those issues and the effects and the signs and symptoms to look out for.

NC: Jill we’ve been talking a lot, and you've been emphasising the importance of helping the individual but in terms of businesses, clearly when people are below par, when they’re using substances they’re not often going to be very productive, in terms of the damage to the business the pressure is to act more quickly and that of course may not be the best solution for somebody if they end up getting suspended or something?

JM: I think a lot of the problems we’re talking about are significant issues in people’s lives and the really tough times that people are dealing with, so I think businesses do need to be proactively thinking about how they can effectively manage and support people and we need to be doing that straightaway, not just waiting for when an incident happens or when there's a health and safety issue or when there's a wellbeing concern. But we know that one in five employers are not offering proactive support to workers and support issues of drug and alcohol misuse and I think businesses do need to be looking at this because we know drug and alcohol misuse is a significant issue in UK society and therefore it’s also going to be an issue across UK workplaces.

CB: So for smaller companies this is really difficult and I wonder how do we help them do these things when it might not be quite so easy. So I think for a larger company there will be more people around and possibly more resources to enable the manager to be capable but it worries me that we have lots of middle size and smaller companies and they even find it difficult to do the sort of things we want done if you like on general wellbeing and mental health. So this is an added dimension and I don't think we should forget that.

NC: Simon jones what do you think about that be we all know some managers who shouldn’t be let anywhere near employees, particularly when they’ve got intractable personal difficulties?

SJ: Well I think that's a different issue which we could probably spend a good couple of hours discussing about management capabilities generally, but I think the point with smaller companies is again it’s making them aware of where they can get support. And I think very much focusing it as part of the general mental health and wellbeing approach. Even smaller companies these days are aware that they need to be doing something about mental health and general staff wellbeing, even if in practice they don't do huge amounts of it they’re aware it’s something they should be doing. And I think if you include drugs and alcohol, because in a lot of cases they're actually symptoms of broader mental health problems. And I think from that point of view, again rather than saying this is another thing you need to worry about, if you include it as part of that general approach to wellbeing and mental health I think  that's a much more effective way of doing it. And small organisations can manage that. The other thing I've found working with smaller organisations is often they take a much more person-centred approach to the organisation because it’s somebody that they will know quite well because they’re a small organisation and people tend to work more closely together. So you may sometimes get a much more sympathetic approach from a smaller business because it’s somebody they may have worked with for a long while, they know they’ve relied on for a number of years etc. etc. So from that point of view it’s not small firms can't or won't do it it’s sometimes they will actually take a much more proactive approach to it. 

NC: I know Carol Black in your report you looked at the various ways companies try to deal with this and were helping the government to try and improve it across the piece. What’s the essential difference between those employers, those organisations that are really bad at helping people and those that have got to grips with it?

CB: I think they're not thinking proactively, they may have something in place which will go more down the disciplinary line but a good company will have made it clear that as much as they’re there to support people’s mental health, carer responsibilities, if they’ve got any problems with domestic violence at home, they will also have put alcohol and drugs in there. There'll be this knowledge that is permeating the organisation that there are a whole host of issues that if you can be open and seek help. And I think that requires, as we’ve said, so much about that message and then the line manager capability and it may be that you need to refresh that because I think as was said earlier you could send someone on a training programme but they might not meet the problem for another year and so it’s again how do you keep this refreshed; where do you have your policies and are they written in a way that’s really acceptable and, if you like welcoming so you know the positive things that need to be done? I think to wait until you've got the problem and then you might react, as you say Nigel, rather quickly and perhaps not so appropriately, these are difficult, delicate issues.

NC: Simon you mentioned earlier for example the bus drivers that aren’t allowed to have a drink the day before their going to work, if we had more organisations with much clearer rules, even if people thought they might be a bit draconian might that actually reduce this rising tide of drug and alcohol abuse?

SJ: I think the issue is really whether it’s seen as acceptable, it’s that boundary between where is an employer interfering, if you like, with somebody’s personal life as opposed to the need for it to be safety critical. So I think the issue is very much if people understand why there is a very draconian rule people are going to accept it. If they can't see a need for a rule and it just seems to be the employer putting in rules for rules sake or trying to interfere with people’s social lives I think it’ll be much less acceptable. So although I haven’t got any direct evidence I think where people understand the need for a rule it’s generally followed and they also understand the consequences of it not being followed.

NC: So Jill Miller you've already referred to the fact more than once that this is a welfare question more than a disciplinary one so how do organisations go about improving the way that they watch people’s backs if you like, the way they help them without being too intrusive about it?

JM: I think that's a really good question because there is an awful lot that employers could do and I think there's a lot they can do no matter what size they are or what resources that they have behind them. There are some key things that HR can focus on. I think one of them we’ve  mentioned already which is to encourage disclosure by promoting that real supportive environment, telling people about the support on offer and reminding people as well about it and the line manager’s role in having those regular catch ups with people. I think line managers are often people’s connection with the organisation so asking people some quite open-ended questions about their wellbeing can help, or give people that opportunity really to ask for support no matter what their issue is.

NC: And do you think it makes any difference if people are in their own homes rather than in an office where obviously it is easier to keep an eye on somebody?

JM: I think it’s even more important if people are working remotely for line managers to be having those kind of catch ups because as you say when people are working remotely we don't see them every day. But there's other things I think employers can do to encourage people to actually seek help which is giving them time off to get that help, giving them flexibility to attend appointments like if they need to go to mutual aid meetings or see health professionals. But as well one thing we did talk about right at the beginning is around the work-related risk factors that has been associated with substance misuse, things like workload stress and whether the nature of the work is fuelling drinking culture, so if there's a lot, for example, of client entertaining expectations, or if you feel that to get noticed at work you have to be at after work drinks down the pub. There's those kind of peer pressure things going on.

NC: Is that still around at the moment with COVID and so on?

JM: I think that's a really good point because I think at the moment obviously there's the pause on the social events, this is a really good time to be thinking about the kind of social events your organisation holds, do the centre all around alcohol and how much do you think about wellbeing, like is there soft drinks, how do people get home safely.

NC: This is a really good time to recast that, I mean in theory there should be less abuse not more.

JM: Well I think there’s the wellbeing issue around social events but there's also the inclusion angle as well in that our survey found that a quarter of HR professionals said some people don't go to social gatherings because of the expectation to drink. I think there's many different reasons why people may choose not to consume alcohol.

NC: I think there's another whole programme in that, these ways of being excluded that we don't even think about. And we should say there's a huge amount of guidance notes on the CIPD website. Carol Black from your point of view as we try and draw this together, we’ve already touched on what you've had to say about employers and how they tackle all this I mean what could be done that would try and stem this worrying trend?

CB: Well I think first of all from an employer’s point of view I really want to see a change in how they view this problem. I think often it is not viewed as a health issue, as I said you often stigmatise and therefore it is not always easy for the worker to really say that they’re having this problem, whereas I think they’ve got better at saying, ‘I've got a mental health problem,’ and often mental health and alcohol and drugs go together. So I think there's a cultural issue here. There's something about the organisation and its culture and if you can't change that, just changing processes may not be enough. So I think you do know that, you need everything that Jill has said of what an employer can do. And I think it’s got to be so visible and I think we’re not there yet. And even though we don't think of these people as like the people dying on the street of heroin and crack, we still stigmatise them once we know about it and that is something that I want to see change.

NC: Okay well thanks for that. And Simon Jones quite a lot of your points as mentioned there just give us one or two of them in conclusion.

SJ: Well as I said earlier I think one of the things is that people, in HR particularly, need to educate themselves about some of the issues and as Carol said there is a lot of stigma around and we do tend to bring in sometimes our own personal views and prejudices about, particularly drugs, when we’re trying to deal with these situations. And I think also it’s look at other areas of support, you don't have to be the expert on everything, you know use occupational health, use your employee assistance programme, use drug and alcohol charities who do have expertise in that area and will be able to guide you.

NC: Particularly important for small firms there.

SJ: Particularly yes.

NC: They don't have all those other officials, all those other professionals available.

SJ: And particularly for small firms, but I think even in larger firms the charities that do work in this area in particular will be more than happy to advise employers because in a sense it potentially helps them avoiding getting a client in the future. So from that point of view I'm sure they would be happy to assist in that whatever the size of the firm. But yes as you say small firms particularly can benefit from using those external resources. Nobody would expect them to have them all internally. Obviously building on the wellbeing approach, but in particular if you do get a case, and they are quite rare, don't go in with preconceived ideas, you need to find out what the issue is that’s causing the underlying problem and deal with that and try and deal with it sympathetically as possible, where you can, recognising that occasionally it might have to result in disciplinary action.

NC: That's a very good point to end on. I’ll just mention in the last podcast we were talking about workplace monitoring, is surveillance becoming the new norm and what should you be careful of. Interesting to see that since our last discussion the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has just started investigating something we mentioned on the podcast of Barclays use of tracking software to monitor how long employees were away from their desks and how much time they were spending on particular tasks. It just shows we do try to keep our finger on the pulse and keep you across the big current issues for people managers. So do have a listen to that last edition, if you haven’t already and do tell your friends about this podcast. Please subscribe so you never miss and episode. Our thanks to Carol Black, to Simon Jones and Jill Miller. From the CIPD until next time it’s goodbye.

Topic pages


Learn about the benefits of an effective well-being programme for your organisation and employees

Read more