Drug and alcohol policy in the workplace

By Phillip Collins*
Monday, 10 February, 2014


At the Australian Drug Foundation, we call alcohol and other drug use the “hidden cost” to Australian workplaces because, for the most part, many businesses are blind to its impact or reluctant to face up to it.

So let me shed some light: alcohol and drugs cost Australian businesses $6 billion a year in hidden lost productivity and absenteeism.

While the dollar cost to businesses across Australia might be quite a shock to some, it’s nothing compared to the human cost. Alcohol use contributes to 5% of all Australian workplace deaths and 11% of accidents, as well as the huge human toll on families and relationships impacted by alcohol and other drugs.

Best practice organisations not only recognise this as an issue, they know that these costs directly impact on their bottom line and that the drinking activities and drug use of an employee can affect work performance.

But it’s not all bad news for employers when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

At the Australian Drug Foundation, we started working with businesses because we identified the great potential the workplace has to positively affect a person’s health and wellbeing. We also saw employers looking for ways to reduce health and safety risks.

Each workplace has its own unique customs, practices and conditions which impact the workplace culture, and alcohol and drug use, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

There are, however, four basic components central to any effective workplace alcohol and drug program.

  1. Workplaces need to develop and implement a sound formal written alcohol and drug policy which fits the organisation’s needs and addresses workplace-specific risks.
  2. Education and training about drugs and alcohol is necessary to ensure employees understand your organisation’s policy and have enough information about alcohol and drugs in the workplace, including the risks of harm. Web-based training in particular has been identified as a really valuable way to educate employees. As an employer, you can use web training to inform employees of your company’s policies about alcohol and other drugs in the workplace, and educate them on the harms they can cause. The Australian Drug Foundation has produced a great tool called ADF Aware, which can be tailored for individual companies.
  3. Employees need to have access to confidential counselling and treatment services, and they should be provided with paid or unpaid leave to attend sessions. By investing in providing access to these services, organisations can avoid the financial costs and loss of morale amongst co-workers associated with employee dismissals.
  4. Ongoing evaluation of alcohol and other drug programs is essential to long-term effectiveness. Like any business program, we need to regularly review and improve processes to make sure they reflect changes in the workforce or improvements that can be made.

Many workplaces also look to drug testing as a solution to drug and alcohol use. While reliable data on the number of workplaces that test employees isn’t available, some media reports suggest workplace testing is increasing at the rate of 25-30% each year.

No one objects to the breath testing of automobile drivers to ensure their performance is not impaired by high concentrations of alcohol. Similarly, people who are engaged in safety critical work in occupations such as transport or the use of heavy machinery may also expect to undergo drug testing to reduce the risk of harm to themselves and others.

Yet, in other contexts, workplace drug testing is far more controversial. For instance, a NSW electricity company recently made headlines after the Fair Work Commission barred it from drug testing its employees using their urine.

At the upcoming Safety In Action Conference in Darwin (19-20 March), I will be on a panel discussion about whether or not drug testing is a suitable solution. I’ll be looking at examples of workplace testing and the success rates. I’ll also ask organisations to consider why they are testing. Evidence suggests testing is not a deterrent - so is there a better way?

A preventive alcohol and drug workplace program can help organisations of any size become healthier, happier and more productive.

*Phillip Collins is Head of Workplace Services at the Australian Drug Foundation.

Celebrating more than 50 years of service to the community, the Australian Drug Foundation is Australia’s leading body committed to preventing alcohol and other drug problems in communities around the nation. Our aim is to create an Australian culture that supports people to live healthy, safe and satisfying lives, unaffected by drug and alcohol problems.

The foundation works with workplaces to assess alcohol and other drug risks they may be exposed to, and to provide sustainable solutions that reduce the risks of harm.

For more information, including a free trial of the Australian Drug Foundation’s online workplace training program, ADF Aware, visit http://www.adf.org.au/programs-services/workplace-services.

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