The drugs don’t work, they just make you worse

drugsThe highly-publicised case of Paul Flowers, the disgraced former chairman of the Co-op Bank, filmed allegedly buying drugs, has put the spotlight on the use and misuse of drugs and alcohol by senior employees. What role does human resources play in developing and enforcing drug and alcohol policies in City firms? Is the culture of drug use in certain segments of the financial services sector in the City widespread, or is it just a case of negative media publicity?

As the song goes, “the drugs don’t work, they just make you worse”. The reality however is that the message of the song has yet to sink into UK society, where the level of alcohol and drug use is frightening: 26 percent of men and 18 percent of women drank more than the recommended 21 units in an average week, according to the NHS Information Centre in England in 2009. Around one-third of adults have taken an illicit drug in their lifetime, according to the 2012 to 2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Given the level of consumption in society, it’s unsurprising that four out of 10 respondents to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD’s) survey, ‘Managing alcohol and drug misuse at work’ identified the consumption of alcohol as a significant cause or very significant cause of employee absence and lost productivity.

A 2003 study by Leontaridi found that between 6 percent and 15 percent of the 176 million working days lost to sickness absence in 2001 was due to alcohol-related sickness. The majority of employers do view alcohol and drug use as a major cause of absenteeism, according to research by Alcohol Concern, DrugScope and Personnel Today in 2001.

But what about the drug culture in the City of London? Richard Kingdon is the managing director of City Beacon, an addiction-based service based in the City. A former addict, Richard has been clean for 17 years and believes that the City is an unhealthy place for someone with an addiction problem.

“A lot of City workers are by nature risk takers, working in an environment where they’re made to believe they’re invincible, and where it’s acceptable to drink heavily and take drugs, but not seek professional help for these problems,” Kingdon said. “Their addictions are varied but it’s predominantly cocaine and alcohol. We’re talking about young, alpha males who are very affluent and the culture of the City means they are dealing with extreme highs and lows.”

Kingdon works with professionals across the City of London including brokers, traders, lawyers and IT professionals. He believes that there has been a change in attitude from City employers over the past few years. “It’s a bit more supportive around alcohol but there is still a taboo around drugs. It’s very rare for someone to go to their HR department and say they have a problem with cocaine because it’s illegal. There is a hidden culture around drugs; it’s the elephant in the room. Lots of people present themselves with alcohol problems but there are often other issues going on.”

Keeping one’s nose out of it

Kingdon provides a one-to-one service for clients as well as a telephone service. “People have to learn to function in the City as there is plenty of cocaine and alcohol in the Square Mile. They have to learn to be comfortable around it and not get involved.”

Only six out of 10 employers however have rules in place about the possession of drugs and alcohol on the premises, according to the CIPD’s research. The survey of 505 UK-based HR professionals found that two-thirds of organisations communicated policies on drug and alcohol misuse through a staff handbook, whereas only 33 percent of employers train managers as part of their efforts to communicate policies on drug and alcohol misuse at work.

The CIPD survey found that eight out of 10 employers took a combined approach to managing alcohol and drug problems at work by treating it as a combined disciplinary and health issue. The approach taken by financial services towards alcohol and drug policies in the workplace hinges on the culture of the organisation, according to Matthew Howse, partner at law firm Morgan Lewis.

“U.S. banks do have a more aggressive approach to drug and alcohol testing and they have fewer privacy concerns. At European financial institutions, they take a more cautious approach than the U.S.-headquartered banks.”

This has a big impact on how policies are shaped, Howse said. “We see some policies that are paternalistic and about helping the employee and at the other end, we see policies about discipline and dismissal.” Howse said drug and alcohol policies could range from organisations referring employees to a rehabilitation programme to the more severe action of instant dismissal.

The CIPD survey found a third of employers had referred employees with alcohol problems for specialist treatment and rehabilitation in the last two years, with 12 percent having done so for drug problems. Out of those employees that that organisation had referred to treatment or supported through rehabilitation, just over 60 percent remained working for the organisation after successful management of their problem.

HR departments in large organisations should have the capability to develop the policies, said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD. “In some organisations where you have professionals entertaining clients outside work, then the policies will need to cover those sorts of circumstances and the organisation needs to be clear about what their stance is towards corporate entertainment.”

The role of HR is to educate line managers about the alcohol and drugs policy, Willmott said.

“HR should make sure there is information and guidance available to enable them to feel confident about using the policy. It’s about managers understanding their staff and having regular one-to-one sessions with them. Managers could also learn to pick up on early warning signs such as employees coming in late or taking time off work. It’s the same with any potential problem which is trying to understand the root cause and highlight the support that is available within the organisation.”

Drug and alcohol policies will often encroach onto privacy and data protection issues if employers carry out drugs testing on employees at work, Howse said. “As information gathered and used about an employee’s health is regarded as ‘sensitive personal data’ the employer will need to first satisfy the requirements of the Data Protection Act. Often employers will seek to rely on health and safety grounds because all employers have a duty to ensure a safe place of work and safe systems of work for their staff. To carry out such drugs testing, it’s important for an employer to have a clear and accessible policy.”

The management of a drug and alcohol policy should not be left to HR, said Dr Philip Kindred, technical services manager for Synergy Health, an outsourced healthcare services company. “It’s important that occupational health is involved as staff coming forward with problems or as a result of a test may need assistance and the role of occupational health is important in managing the outcomes of a policy.”

Top tips on what an organisation’s alcohol and drug policy should contain:

  • Explain clearly why the organisation is concerned about alcohol and drug use and why it is seen as a problem in the workplace and that everyone is responsible for making that policy work.
  • Ensure all staff understand what the employing organisation will and will not allow in relation to employees’ drug and alcohol use as it affects their employment.
  • Set out clearly the rules and procedures for managing issues relating to drug, alcohol and other substances to include both the supportive and disciplinary elements.
  • Explain who is responsible for administering and maintaining the policy.

Source: CIPD ‘Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work’.

Article by Karen Higginbottom – a freelance journalist who writes on employment issues for The Guardian and People Management magazine. She has written on a diverse range of topics, from transexuals in the workplace to bullying bosses.