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Under the Influence

Friday, August 15, 2014 - 08:10

Drug and alcohol policies are vital in any organisation, as what employees get up to in their own time can affect their safety and productivity in the workplace. By Leon Gettler 

Drugs and alcohol abuse impact businesses and managers. The Australian Drug Foundation estimates alcohol and drug misuse cost the Australian workplace $6 billion a year.

The effects come through in loss of productivity, absenteeism, injuries and workplace deaths. It affects the bottom line, which means managers need to put in place robust policies along with preventative training to help reduce financial and social impacts. An Australian Drug Foundation poll found one in five employees had performed their job while under the influence of alcohol; one in five had taken a sickie because of alcohol effects; and about 40 per cent admitted going to work feeling the effects of drinking.

Alcohol use contributes to 11 per cent of workplace accidents and 5 per cent of all Australian workplace deaths. It can also be legally fraught. In May, the Federal Circuit Court ordered the Office of Public Prosecutions in Victoria to reinstate a lawyer who had been dismissed for reasons connected to his depression, complicated by self-medication with alcohol.

Australian Institute of Management executive general manager Tony Gleeson says managers must be proactive, sympathetic and have measures in place, such as HR departments and employee assistance programs, to deal  with the issue. “As a manager you can’t let it go,’’ Gleeson says. “Talk about it at management meetings and look at staff issues. There should be ongoing discussion … at management and board meetings.”

Dr Steve Brown AFAIM, manager at AIM WA-UWA Business School Executive Education, says managers need to first of all recognise the risk factors that could lead to drug and alcohol problems. These include: a predominance of young males in the workplace, shift work, lack of supervision, availability of drugs and alcohol, and employees engaged in monotonous and repetitive tasks.

Companies can have policies in place, but he says the more progressive ones have education programs creating awareness about drugs and alcohol and counselling sessions. Any policy needs to be developed in consultation with staff.

“The reason is that if you get people involved in the discussions, they are far more likely to invest in making it work,” Brown says.

Joe Murphy, a director of Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors, says managers need to develop policies that look at every aspect of work: “Fatigue, shift work and patterns of work,’’ he says. “The biggest challenge for employers is helping people manage their out-of-work lifestyles. What makes it an even more difficult challenge is that the Fair Work Commission takes the view it’s not an employer’s business, what employees do in their own hours. They should keep their nose out of it and if an employee takes drugs and drinks lots of alcohol in their own time, that’s their business.

“The biggest challenge for employers is to educate their employees about their out-of-work habits.”

Companies have moved away from zero-tolerance policies and are more likely to give warnings and treatment, he says. If that fails, there’s dismissal.

Companies with drug and alcohol policies include BHP Billiton, Toll Holdings, RML Group Mining Services, Visionstream, BMD Constructions, ExxonMobil Australia, DFP Recruitment and RCA Australia. Rio Tinto has done an Australian Drug Foundation course to develop an education program dovetailing into a new drug testing procedure the company put in place. Allens, one of Australia’s top commercial law firms, put together a program for its Christmas party that reduced high intoxication. Other entities that have taken Australian Drug Foundation training sessions include the AFL Players Association, the NRL, New South Wales Rugby League and Queensland Rugby League, Newcastle Knights, Australian Catholic University and Summerland Credit Union.

A Flinders University paper by Dr Ken Pidd and Professor Ann Roche, from the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, titled “Workplace alcohol and other drug programs: What is good practice?”, says companies need a formal written policy on drug and alcohol-related harm in the workplace. The policy should outline procedures for approaching and dealing with an affected employee and provide information on treatment or counselling services. It also needs to detail any disciplinary action that may be taken if the policy is breached.

Pidd and Roche say companies should also provide awareness and education programs for employees, allowing communication with those performing poorly due to drug and alcohol-related issues. The success of these programs, however, will depend on the attitudes and behaviour of managers, supervisors and safety personnel.

They also say companies should provide counselling and treatment services, either through an employee assistance program or pay for private or community-based non-profit services, and ensure the treatment is relevant and appropriate. The policies need to be evaluated – by managers, supervisors, unions and staff – to ascertain effectiveness. Other measures could include health promotion programs, peer intervention, psychosocial skills training (such as cognitive behaviour therapy), problem-solving, goal-setting, contingency management and coping strategies, and workplace drug testing.

Phillip Collins, the Australian Drug Foundation’s head of Workplace Services, says alcohol management is a bigger issue than drugs, simply because more people take the legal stuff.

“Drugs are a small part of the population,’’ he says. “A small percentage of the population take recreational drugs. Marijuana, about 10 per cent of the population; methamphetamines, about 2 per cent to 4 per cent; whereas alcohol runs to 83 per cent.”

Involvement from managers is critical. “When we look at organisations, we look at the whole of the organisation as opposed to looking at one tier or one level,” Collins says.

“It goes from the top to the bottom. It’s about management, from the CEO down. The CEO has to be doing the same thing as the next line manager. It is a whole organisation approach.”

He says the key is to teach managers and employees that alcohol takes a lot longer to get out of the system than a lot of people realise, and that can affect productivity.

“Let us say, for example, a manager at a Sunday barbecue has seven schooners of beer over four or five hours. On average, it would take 17 hours to get through their system, which means they would be going into work on Monday twice over the legal limit,” he says.

“That means the cognitive skills of a manager who, making a big decision in the morning, had an entertaining night the night before aren’t quite there.

“Someone on an assembly line putting electronic bits together, their motor skills are not as high as they should be and therefore error rates go up, which hits productivity.”


This article appeared in the August 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.