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Alcohol and employment problems

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The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 264 No 7101p926-927
June 17, 2000 Articles

Alcohol and employment problems

By John Muir, BCom, FIPM, FCIArb

Problems caused at work though alcohol may not be immediately obvious. Those which are need to be handled through support programmes before disciplinary procedures are used

The cost to industry due to sickness absence has been estimated to run to of half-a-billion working days a year. Within this total some absences can be pin-pointed to specific causes. Conditions like bronchitis and backache are well known. They account for substantial parts of the overall total. Another cause of absence is the misuse of alcohol. On the self-certificate that the employee fills in on his or her return to work it is unlikely that the true reason for the absence will be given. On the contrary, the cause is probably going to put down to a "stomach upset" or "cold" - in other words, something common that is not going to stretch the imagination.
Various estimates have been given about the scale of absence due directly to alcohol, but these depend on what is taken into account regarding the conditions that are, or can be, linked to it. Absence, as such, does not cover the whole of the cost to industry. There is also a substantial loss occasioned by poor work performance after a drinking session.
Over the past few years, many firms have sought to introduce major changes to old practices. What might have been access to unlimited drink in the directors' or senior executives' dining room has been replaced by a policy of soft drinks only. Elsewhere, the general dining room has lost its bar and the sports and social club restricts sales to food during normal working hours. It is of crucial importance to have a consistent policy and not to treat one section of the organisation differently from another.

Too much tolerance?

All these measures have gone some way to reining in the drink problem at work. It is now much rarer for some senior staff to be regarded as "off limits" if their advice or authority has to be sought in the afternoon. The fact remains, however, that management is often tolerant about drink and drink related problems to the point of being irresponsible. Employees on the shop floor can be too loyal in covering up for colleagues who are either absent or incapable of work to the point of ignoring safety and the longer term interests of themselves and the company overall.
A further step taken by companies, often with the full co-operation of employee representatives, has been to clarify the disciplinary rules about drink. There might now be a total prohibition against taking any kind of alcohol into the work premises and explicit regulations about not drinking for so many hours before coming to work. Whatever the rules, they need to be spelt out and widely published so that no one can come along and plead ignorance at a later stage.
The scale and extent of alcohol problems at work are frequently not appreciated by management, yet there should be ready access to information on this. Under what should be standing arrangements about statutory sick pay, records relating to absences generally can be examined. This will show whether there are staff who make a habit of not turning up for work on a Monday and give a standardised reason for the absence on the self-certificate, or, if they do attend, they come in late.
If a trend is evident then it could well be that a drink problem exists. Steps must then be taken to explore the matter further. It is a well-known fact that binge drinking over the weekend can lead to serious health problems on Mondays with consequential absences.
Most disciplinary procedures would have drunkenness as an example of gross misconduct that could be a cause or reason for dismissal. Until recent times, a company would act without too much hesitation in moving to summary action if this condition were thought or found to be the case. However, since the introduction of the concept of unfair dismissal (with the attendant testing of the employer's reasonableness in the process and decision taken) this is often unwise. This is not to say that dismissal should not take place if the circumstances are right, but, like so many other things, the question is what are the circumstances.

Conduct and capability

In looking at issues where alcohol is involved there may well be two elements present, ie, conduct or capability or both. Within the statutory definition of capability is the aspect of ill health. The connection is clear. While the employee may be fully capable of doing the job when he or she is at work, absence (in this case due to drink) means that incapability exists. If the employee is present at work but, due to a condition brought on by alcohol, is unable to do the work, or can only do it badly, then that again is a facet of capability.
Misconduct is also likely to be present, though it does not follow that it has to be present, but the extent and degree has to be carefully considered.
The starting point for any action must be an investigation. Perhaps there has been an incident at work or the employee's absence and lateness record has been revealed. The outcome of that investigation will usually show whether the matter should be pursued as a health issue (at least in the initial stages) or whether it warrants the full application of disciplinary procedures as a conduct matter.
The decisions of industrial tribunals and higher courts show that clear regard has to be paid to the possible medical implications and that that aspect should be fully explored first. If it were shown that a drink problem exists then the use of the disciplinary procedure would be inappropriate at that point. It may be the case later that the business has to be handled that way. Some organisations have developed alcohol policies, the main strands of which are counselling and assistance.
One such policy starts: "In pursuing the objectives of assisting employees with alcohol problems, the referral process should not be seen as a means of avoiding the disciplinary process." It goes on to say that "experience of other schemes shows that it is often in the employee's own interests that the disciplinary process is not halted completely on the grounds of a referral."

Independent assistance

In such a policy, the work of counselling and assistance is in the hands of a unit independent of personnel or line management. An employee is able to make a direct approach if he or she has a problem; otherwise, the referral is made by the company after an incident or situation relating to drink.
This course can only be pursued if the worker agrees, but clearly if the employee rejects the idea of seeing the unit then he or she would have to explain to the employer the basis for the refusal. A situation of this kind would count against the employee and for the company.
If a self-referral was made to the unit, then any information given by the employee would be confidential. If the referral was made by the company then an agreement would have to be reached with the employee about the information which could be passed back.
A recommended course of treatment proposed by such a unit would normally stay any action under disciplinary procedures. Successful treatment could result in the cancellation of any warning that had been given. If the initial situation was one where gross misconduct was the issue then what otherwise might have been a dismissal could be left as a final written warning.

A good approach

The essence of this approach follows closely the principles to be applied in handling any ill health situation. Industrial tribunals will expect to see the efforts which employers have made to assist the employee in putting matters right and that resort to dismissal was a final action when there had been a failure on the employee's part either to take up the assistance offered or a relapse to old ways.
While the assistance route should be seen as an important part of dealing with an alcohol related situation, there will inevitably be some incidents at work of such gravity that disciplinary action must be taken forthwith. Forthwith does not, however, mean outside the normal process of investigation and no business should be conducted with the employee in question if he or she is under the influence of drink.
Suspension would be the proper course to enable the employee to respond fully and put forward any explanation. It might be the case, for example, that the apparent state of the employee at the time of the incident was itself the result of some other medical condition of which the employer was unaware.
It will often be the case that (when the employee is drunk on duty and working in an environment where he or she is a danger to others) dismissal on grounds of gross misconduct (without any recourse to an alcohol policy) would be seen as fair.
This would be particularly so if the individual refused to leave the premises and was abusive or offensive. However, it is wise not to prejudge any situation since all cases have to be taken on their merits and the particular circumstances relating to them.
What is clear from the way that the tribunal system looks at alcohol dismissals is that the old practice of drawing up rigid rules and acting in an inflexible manner will no longer serve the purpose of good employee relations.
There certainly ought to be well defined and well publicised rules, but they should be drawn to reflect the real needs of the company. Further, there has to be a cautious approach to alcohol situations since it is likely that much will need to be discovered and perhaps much done before final decisions can be taken.

John Muir is managing director of Corporate Employee Relations and author of 'Industrial relations procedures and agreements' (Gower Publishing Co Ltd)

Pharmacists' Health Support Scheme

The Pharmacists' Health Support Scheme exists to assist those who experience problems with alcohol or other drugs of addiction, or who have other problems that impair their fitness to practice. The scheme was set up by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society but operates independently so that help can be sought in complete confidence.
Any pharmacist with an alcohol or drug problem, or any person knowing a pharmacist with such a problem, can obtain confidential help after making an initial telephone call to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's welfare officer, Mrs Beverly Nicol (telephone: 01323 890135). No caller will be required to disclose any names or other information to her. She will give the caller the telephone number of either the scheme's independent national co-ordinator or one of its regional referees. Alternatively, callers can contact the national co-ordinator's direct helpline (tel 01926 315138).

Hope House
Treatment programmes for pharmacists and other health care professionals who are addicted to alcohol and drugs are available at Hope House, a treatment centre established at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's benevolent home, Birdsgrove House, in Derbyshire. Most patients attending Hope House are referred by the National Health Service and have their fees paid by health authorities.
Treatment programmes generally last five weeks with follow-up for at least 12 months. Patients spend up to seven hours a day in the treatment centre. This can be followed by attendance at local held self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The centre can take up to seven patients at one time.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20001842

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