Drug and Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

Business Insights


The issue of drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace is extremely serious and difficult to navigate as an employer. According to the ONS 2023 survey, in 2020 “2.3% of people surveyed were frequent drug users.” This equates to 777,000 of the people surveyed having taken a drug more than once a month in the last year.

The problem has always existed, but it also evolves with the availability of new illegal drugs, and global issues that create societal changes which increase financial and emotional pressures.

Navigating issues with drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace can be complex and extremely sensitive. In this article, we outline legal requirements and best practice approaches to ensure you are equipped to deal with any employee drug and alcohol situation you are presented with.

We will look at the following areas:

  • The law
  • What to include in a drug and alcohol policy
  • Alcohol and workplace culture
  • Policy in practice
  • How to approach drug and alcohol testing in the UK
  • Indicators that an employee might be struggling with substance abuse
  • How to approach a conversation about substance abuse outside of work
  • How to handle a case of suspected substance abuse whilst at work
  • Can an employer dismiss someone because of substance abuse?
  • How to support an employee with substance addiction


Drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace: The Law

As employers, your interaction with any situation involving drug or alcohol misuse in the workplace is governed by specific laws. Your Drugs and Alcohol Policy is underpinned by compliance with these laws, as they specifically apply to your workplace environment.

Your duty of care

Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) – these two acts cover the duty of care that employers have to “ensure the health and safety of employees and others so far as is reasonably practicable.” For example, it can be an offence if a manager knows that an employee is drunk and lets them carry on working, because it causes an increased risk to the individual employee and/or their colleagues.

These laws also lay out the individual responsibility of every employee to take all reasonable care and avoid creating health and safety risks to themselves or others.

Legalities of drugs on the premises

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) is a broad section of law that covers drug classification and the legal handling of controlled drugs, amongst other things.

It’s Section 8 that concerns employers:

“A person commits an offence if, being the occupier or concerned in the management of any premises, he knowingly permits or suffers any of the following activities to take place on those premises, that is to say—

(a) producing or attempting to produce a controlled drug in contravention of section 4(1) of this Act;

(b) supplying or attempting to supply a controlled drug to another in contravention of section 4(1) of this Act, or offering to supply a controlled drug to another in contravention of section 4(1);

(c) preparing opium for smoking;

(d) smoking cannabis, cannabis resin or prepared opium.”

In plain English, you’re breaking the law if you let people sell, give, hold or take a controlled substance in the workplace. Having a clearly defined and well-known Drugs and Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace Policy makes your legal position obvious to all stakeholders.

Safety critical jobs

Transport and Works Act (1992)

This act applies to operators of any transport system that carries members of the public. It’s a specific criminal offence to operate while under the influence of drink or drugs – the risk to life is so high. It also lays out testing procedures, which are commonly used for train drivers.

Road Traffic Act (1988)

This piece of law covers a huge number of details around licensing and use of all vehicles. As an employer, you need to know that it’s an offence to be in charge of a vehicle when under the influence of drugs or drink – classed as ‘unfit to drive’. This applies to prescription medication, not just illegal drugs.

What to include in a Drug and Alcohol Policy

Your Drug and Alcohol Policy needs to be from a perspective of ensuring the health and safety of your employees.

Drug and alcohol misuse in the workplace has two different possible impacts on the workplace:

  • Employees who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work present a greater risk to their own, their colleagues and your customers’ safety. It’s worth bearing in mind that this means physical and psychological safety.

  • Individual employees may negatively impact their health through long-term use or dependency on drugs or alcohol – even if those drugs are legally prescribed or purchased over the counter. These health consequences may be visible as their performance at work decreases.

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