Drugs in the workplace: what every manager needs to know

18 April 2016 -

Drugs in the Workplace

Research reveals more than a third of UK workers suspect or know a colleague has a drug problem

Jermaine Haughton

The sporting world has been rocked in recent months with doping allegations arising in tennis, athletics, and football.

Serving as a reminder that substance abuse also remains a problem in the workplace, a new study has shown that over a third (35%) of employees know or suspect that their colleagues have a drug problem or take illegal substances either during or outside work.

The survey of 1,000 workers, commissioned by employment law specialists Crossland Employment Solicitors, suggests drug-taking is widespread in many offices across the UK.

Some 20% of employees admitted to taking, injecting, or smoking illegal substances during the weekend and holidays, while 12.5% said they take illegal substances every week.

Managers suspecting any staff member of drug-taking have a responsibility to address it to protect their company.

Research shows recreational drugs can have a significant negative effect on work performance, including a decline in productivity, morale, and profitability. There is also a very real possibility of fatal accidents in higher-risk occupations such as driving or machine operating.

More than 45% of those who consume drugs agreed it affects their performance in a negative way, varying from feeling down or depressed, to being tired at work to causing their change in mood. Shockingly, 23% admitted they had done something illegal to fund their drug use either in or outside of work, with 12% saying this involved work stock or cash.

Employers who fail to effectively identify and deal with drug-taking by their workers can also face reputational damage. Last summer, several national newspapers ran the story of a city worker seemingly snorting cocaine on the Northern Line on the London Underground.

The press coverage identified the man and his employer, a data room provider whose business is storing confidential information on clients’ behalf. The employer in this instance has stated that they are investigating the matter and will take action under their disciplinary policy.

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, said that many employers and employees do not know where they stand on the issue of drug-taking.

“While some employees are very aware (46%) that disciplinary action could be taken against them for substance abuse, another 35% were unsure of the exact grounds and consequences of any action by their employer - showing that there is big difference between organisations in how clearly they’re communicating their policies on the issue,” she said.

“There has been a noticeable shift in recent years in how the majority of employers handle substance abuse, from previously treating it as a disciplinary issue towards a more supportive approach where it is treated like an illness. However, all organisations should have their own detailed policy in place and clearly communicate it to employees. Depending on the type of job, employers also have legal obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act, The Transport and Works Act and The Misuse of Drugs Act.”


Among the dozens of other duties many managers have to deal with in handling their teams to achieve business objectives, being able to detect, support and legislate against substance abusers and protect themselves and their firms is difficult.

This has lead to a significant increase in the number of companies performing drug tests on their employees, with the number of tests carried out by leading providers increasing by as much as 470% over the past four years.

Dr Philip Kindred, technical services manager at healthcare specialists Synergy Health and a member of the UK and European Workplace Drug Testing Society, advises said employers should take a three-pronged approach: have comprehensive policies; clear communication of those policies and finally good training for health and safety professionals and line managers in how to identify and deal with substance abuse.

“Businesses generally want to achieve a position where drug misuse within the workplace is not tolerated and some will adopt policies that specify pre-employment testing or random on-the-job drug testing as well as ‘for cause’ testing, which is undertaken in response to an incident or is based on reasonable suspicion that a staff member has drugs in his or her system,” he said.

“Whichever level of tolerance is adopted, it is important that this is set out clearly in the policy, along with the sanctions that will be imposed on offenders. Policies should also be clear where the onus lies for ensuring a worker’s system is clear of drugs. So if someone takes drugs at a weekend party, policies should make clear if they must then accept full responsibility should those drugs still be present in their system on Monday morning.”

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