Why Have an Alcohol and Drug Policy?

The argument that was often put forward in the debate on alcohol and drug testing in the workplace was, why should an employer be concerned by what someone may do in their own time? Unfortunately, the ability to compartmentalize the consumption of alcohol or drugs so it takes place only away from the workplace is very difficult for some people and impossible for others. As organizations have become more sophisticated about the use of alcohol and other substances and the impact it can have in the workplace, it is now acknowledged that their consumption even if carried out outside of work hours may result in impaired job performance. The term ‘hangover’ can often mean more than just a headache following excessive consumption of alcohol the night before. It can also mean residual amounts of alcohol or other substances that can impact work performance are still in the bloodstream. The problem is that after the consumption of alcohol (or drugs) their elimination from the body does not always coincide with when it is time to show up for work. The effect of the substance can be present after an employee has ‘punched in’.

It is not the purpose of this chapter to take a position regarding the use or non-use of alcohol outside the workplace. However, the health dangers associated with over-consumption of alcohol are well known. And, it is difficult to find anyone who is not aware of the negative consequences both for health and for social interaction that can come with the misuse of the substance. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),[1] the misuse of alcohol is a risk factor for a number of adverse health outcomes that have workplace implications, including the following:

  • • Unintentional injuries—for example, motor vehicle accidents and falls
  • • Violence
  • • Liver disease
  • • Diseases of the central nervous system, such as stroke or dementia
  • • Heart disease
  • • Various cancers
  • • Risky sexual behaviors and adverse pregnancy outcomes

While the CDC is certainly correct to point out that risky sexual behavior can be a consequence of alcohol misuse, my belief is that it can also be responsible for risky behavior of many other types. Additional statistics highlighted by the CDC include a report in which over 15 % of US workers admitted to being impaired by alcohol while at work during a calendar year. In the USA, it is estimated that more than 700,000 persons received alcoholism treatment every day. And, the cost of alcohol misuse is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition to alcohol misuse, there are other substances that can also be problematic. The entire subject is now further complicated by the non-criminalization of marijuana use in certain states.

However, I have had personal experience with how difficult a blanket prohibition regarding the use of alcohol during work hours can be in some countries other than the USA. It was common practice during senior management lunches when I was based in the Netherlands to have wine served on our premises. Later, during another assignment that had me interact with our organization based in Paris, it was made clear to me that the imposition of the American attitude regarding a glass of wine at lunch would not go over very well with the local populace. Times have probably changed in these countries and there is most likely a slightly different attitude about the consumption of alcohol in the workplace.

Organizations are now generally aware that alcohol and substance misuse can, and often does, impact workplace performance. The most obvious signs of problems with alcohol or drugs are well known to most HR and management professionals:

  • • Attendance issues and excessive time off work
  • • Inattention to details, or unacceptable work
  • • Personal interaction problems with either colleagues, clients, or customers

In general, employers and employer organizations realized that alcohol and drug programs should be adopted to reinforce a commitment to employee health and safety. Today, there are few employees or members of the community who would argue against the benefits of a well-structured alcohol and drug program that includes testing.

  • [1] http://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/implementation/topics/substance-abuse.html,accessed April 3, 2016.
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