Alcohol Awareness week is coordinated by the charity, Alcohol Change UK, this year taking place from the 1-7 July 2024 and its theme being understanding alcohol harm.

From after work drinks to team socials at bars, alcohol is prevalent in working culture. Recent research found that 84% of socials currently involve alcohol and despite a significant number of UK workers avoiding work socials because they know that alcohol is going to be there, 43% felt pressure to attend and drink.

Employers have a duty of care to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees which includes addressing alcohol related issues in the workplace. Whether that be employees presenting signs of decreased productivity due to the influence of alcohol (such as coming to work hungover for instance) to serious health concerns and safety risks, alcohol can have a hugely detrimental impact on employees and employers.

How to deal with alcohol related issues in the workplace

How alcohol related problems should be dealt with by employers will depend on whether the issue which has arisen is one of misconduct, for instance where an employee has been at work whilst under the influence of alcohol, or a capability one, for instance where the employee has an underlying drink problem which is impacting their ability to perform their role effectively.

So, in some instances, it will be appropriate for employers to take disciplinary action against employees but there will also be occasions where the appropriate stance for an employer will be to provide support to employees who are suffering with alcohol misuse.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that only 33% of UK employers provide information for employees on sources of support for drug and alcohol related problems. Providing this kind of information could allow for early detection of alcohol problems, and opportunities to intervene and provide support, all of which might avoid the potential for any issues relating to alcohol arising in the workplace.

Recognising signs of alcohol misuse in the workplace

The first step for employers is to recognise the signs that an employee has a problem with alcohol . These signs may include:

  • Changes in behaviour, such as irritability, slurred speech or aggression
  • Decline in work performance or quality
  • Increased absences or frequent lateness

Responding to suspected alcohol misuse

If an employee is struggling with alcohol misuse and approaches a member of HR to discuss this then the situation should be handled sensitively and confidentiality. Consider the following steps:

  1. Offer Support: Provide information about available support services, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), counselling services, or alcohol awareness resources. Encourage the employee to seek help and reassure them that support is available.
  2. Adjustments to Support Recovery: If alcohol misuse is affecting the employee’s ability to perform their job duties, and they are actively working on trying to overcome those, consider whether you are able to make adjustments on a short-term basis to support their recovery. This may include temporarily reallocating tasks.
  3. Medical Advice: If appropriate, suggest that the employee seeks medical advice or counselling to address their alcohol misuse.

It is worth noting that alcoholism itself is not considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010. However, if an employee’s alcoholism leads to them having a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their normal day-to-day activities, such as depression or a serious liver condition, then while alcoholism is not a disability, the effect that it has on the individual may well lead to disability. Legal advice should be sought before any disciplinary action or other action which may lead to termination of employment is taken if there is any concern that the employee may have a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

When may disciplinary action be appropriate?

If an employee is suffering with alcohol misuse but has declined help or assistance from the employer to help overcome this, or where they do not have an alcohol problem but attend work while under the influence of alcohol at the time, this is something that will typically be addressed as a misconduct rather than a capability issue.

Any disciplinary process should be carried out in accordance with the relevant policy and a full investigation should take place prior to any decision being made. However, in serious cases, e.g., where the employee has sought to operate machinery or drive a vehicle for work purposes while under the influence of alcohol, treating this as gross misconduct would not be uncommon.

Implementing Testing

Testing for alcohol misuse may be considered in certain safety-critical industries. If alcohol testing is going to take place (e.g., by the use of breathalysers) then the employer will need to have a clear policy in place which states when tests can be carried out, how they will be carried out, what will be done with the information, and any consequences for a refusal to participate in the test and/or a negative result.

Consent should be obtained from the employee prior to every test being carried out. It is preferable to make the right to test for alcohol a contractual term of the employment contract. Employees should be informed that an unreasonable refusal to take a test will be treated in the same way as a failed test, both will need to be investigated and disciplinary action may follow. Again, a sanction up to and including dismissal for gross misconduct could be the ultimate outcome.

Notwithstanding the above, testing should be approached with caution and random testing without reasonable cause may infringe on employees’ privacy rights and damage trust in the workplace. The Information Commissioners Office has recently published useful guidance for employers who use drug testing which can be found here.

What can employers do?

Having processes and procedures in place to manage issues arising from alcohol in the workplace can help ensure employers are able to keep their workplace safe for everyone. There is no one size fits all approach to this, but with that being said, there are lots that employers can do to assist Alcohol Change UK in achieving their purpose this Alcohol Awareness Week, whether that be:

  • Switching office socials to activities like escape rooms, pottery painting or coffee mornings where alcohol is not involved.
  • Providing employees with knowledge around the effects of alcohol.
  • Keeping employees up to date with the workplace policies surrounding alcohol consumption.
  • Ensuring employees are aware of the support that is available to them if they are worried about the amount they are drinking and would like to take steps to address this.
Paul Ball
Paul Ball
Employment partner at Gateley Legal

Paul has advised employers on all aspects of employment law for over 25 years and has particular experience in relation to discrimination issues, contractual issues arising on business transfers, and diversity, equality and inclusion.