Identifying substance abuse in the workplace

Of course, if somebody is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs while they are at work, then it is likely that this will be apparent from their behaviour. We are all familiar, in broad outline at least, with some of the main signs that someone is ‘under the influence’ – slurred speech, difficulty in balancing, slowness of movement and thought and so on. However, the situation is not as simple as this for two reasons. First, some drugs may not have such clear tell-tale signs as others. Second, the worker concerned may not actually be using drugs in the workplace but may, none the less, be having (or causing) problems that affect his or her work and may also have an impact on others in the workplace. For example, alcohol and drug misuse may lead to low levels of concentration and a high rate of mistakes being made. In some settings this can present a serious health and safety risk and therefore needs to be taken very seriously. Perhaps the first thing to notice in relation to drug and alcohol problems is that the individual member of staff’s performance is likely to fall and/or he or she may be behaving in ways that are out of character. However, it is important not to jump to conclusions as these problems can also occur for other reasons (as a result of stress, for example). In such circumstances, it is therefore important that we assess the situation carefully and sensitively rather than form premature conclusions. Problems relating to drugs and alcohol often co-exist with other problems (relationship breakdown and/or financial problems, for example) and it is not unusual for such problems to be exacerbated by the use of alcohol or drugs, setting up a vicious circle in which the various problems reinforce one another. Another important point to note is that we should steer clear of relying on stereotypes. For example, we should be careful not to assume that only rugby-playing men have drink problems. People with drink problems come in all shapes and sizes and from all social backgrounds. Similarly, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that only people who are perceived as being ‘hippy-ish’ are likely to be using illegal drugs. While drinking and drug use do tend to follow certain social patterns, it remains the case that anybody, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity or any other social variable, may be a ‘problem drinker’ or drug user. Finally, it is also important to recognise that problems around drugs do not relate just to alcohol or the more well-known illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or marijuana. Some people have drug-related problems as the result of the abuse of prescription drugs (tranquillisers, for example). This is a complex area of human resource practice, and so, if you are faced with these issues, it is important that you become as well-acquainted as you can with the relevant issues and seek help from the professionals when you require it.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

Return to Alcohol and Drugs Problems in the Workplace main page