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Managing substance abuse at work

Georgina Fuller

Georgina Fuller looks at how those in high profile roles can get caught up in a culture of drug taking, and how to manage an employee who is under the influence of illegal substances at work

Every now and then a story comes along which dominates all the headlines and becomes a real talking point. The news that the disgraced former chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers, is being investigated for alleged drug use after being caught on camera buying crystal meth, as well as a flurry of other allegations of dubious activities, is such a story. It has caused such a furore that chancellor George Osbourne has now announced an independent inquiry to investigate matters at the ‘ethical’ bank. Flowers, a Methodist minister from Bradford, has also been suspended from the Church and the Labour party for his ‘inappropriate conduct.’

The fact is, the idea that a high-profile, professional figure may also be a prolific drug user does not sit at all uncomfortably with us. Yet substance abuse costs UK businesses around £4.1bn a year, with organisations losing around 18 million in working days, according to figures from the Health & Safety Executive. 

There are some industries, such as banking or sales, where a culture of drug taking may be more prevalent and, in some cases, almost de rigueur. A number of investment banks, for example, regularly carry out random drug tests on staff, particularly those who work on the trading floor. The long hours and macho culture are often associated with recreational drug use and heavy drinking.  The social side of substance abuse can certainly be a contributing factor. As Beth Burgess, addiction and recovery consultant, notes: “Some people will use drug-taking as a way of bonding, feeling accepted and fitting in. Some industries have traditionally been renowned for working hard and playing harder, and doing cocaine with the boss may be viewed as a rite of passage.”

Managers can also be more prone to substance abuse and getting caught up in a culture of drug taking, says Burgess. “Stress, and an inability to deal with it, is a very common reason why people end up taking drugs, and managers are likely to have a large workload and lots of pressure, so it can be a particular problem for bosses,” she explains. “If employees do not have healthy coping strategies to manage their stress levels, using substances to numb themselves, give them extra energy or change their mood can be very tempting.”

So what can businesses do to help tackle the problem? Helen Pedder, head of HR at Clearsky HR consultancy, says organisations must have a robust policy in place and that they should deal with substance abuse in the same way as they would with any other health issue. “Employees who suffer from substance abuse are likely to display certain behaviours, have a higher absenteeism and decreased productivity,” she notes. “When exhibiting such signs, a manager should arrange a meeting with the employee as early as possible. They should raise any concerns and discuss whether the problems are related to a health issue. From here, managers must agree future action with the employee and arrange follow up meetings in order to monitor their progress.”

It’s not always easy, however, to ascertain if someone is a substance abuser, especially if, as in the case of Flowers, they appear to be socially-adept and successful. Harry Shapiro, director of communications and information at DrugScope charity, notes: “At one level, you could say drug users are just like anybody else. While drug use in the UK generally has been in decline since 2000, there are still many people who use drugs both recreationally and problematically on a regular basis. And those in employment are likely to have more disposal income than those who are not. Apart from obvious intoxication on the work premises, it can be very difficult to spot an employee with a problem.”  

Substance abuse can, however, have a significant impact on productivity and performance and prove very damaging for the company, especially if they hold a public or client-facing role. “An employee who is under the influence is more likely to damage customer relations and have an adverse effect on the reputation of the company,” Burgess notes. “The rest of the team can also suffer, as they may have to make up work that is missed by the substance abuse being late or off sick. This can lead to low morale and resentment, as well as increased stress.”

There are some jobs and industries where substance abuse is also downright dangerous. “In terms of safety critical industries, the impact of an intoxicated employee flying a plane could obviously be devastating,” says Shapiro. “But any kind of impaired judgement through drugs and alcohol could seriously affect a business, especially, for example, where millions of pounds can cross continents at the click of a mouse.”

As Flowers, a respected member of the community, church minister and Labour councillor, has proved, no one is immune to drug or alcohol addiction and substance abuse can affect people from all walks of life. 

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