Drugs and alcohol in the workplace

In Northern Ireland alcohol is the most commonly abused substance, and the majority of people with a drinking problem are in the workplace, but the prospect of tackling when and how much employees drink can be daunting. However acting to prevent problems before they occur can save time in the end and is often more effective than dealing with a problem that becomes too serious to ignore.

Alcohol in the workplace

Alcohol causes an estimated three to five percent of absences from work, equating to an estimated cost to business, in Northern Ireland, of £2.38m. It can also cause:

  • loss of productivity and poor performance
  • lateness and absenteeism
  • safety concerns
  • bad behaviour or poor discipline
  • adverse effects on company image and customer relations

Alcohol can also cause resentment among employees who have to ‘carry’ colleagues whose work declines because of their drinking. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol before or while carrying out work that is ‘safety critical’ will also increase the risk of an accident.

Government guidelines

Government guidance on sensible drinking highlight the following as examples of specific situations when the best advice is not to drink at all:

  • before or during driving
  • before using machinery, electrical equipment or ladders
  • before working or in the workplace where due to the nature of the work, judgement would be adversely affected by alcohol

What is a unit of alcohol?

One unit of alcohol is 10ml (1cl) by volume, or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol. For example:

Examples of alcohol unit(s) per drink

  • Pint of lager - 2 units
  • Half pint of cider - 1 unit
  • Small glass of wine - 1.5 units
  • NI pub measure of spirits - 1.5 units
  • Alco-pop/ready mixed drinks - 1.5 units

Drugs in the workplace

Drug misuse can be a serious problem not only for the misuser but also for the business where they work and, sometimes, for their co-workers. The possession of some drugs is illegal, exposing the misuser to the risk of criminal charges as well as causing harmful effects to their health. You could be breaking the law if you knowingly allow drug-related activities in your workplace and you fail to act. It is just as important to know the implications to both your employees and business of not tackling drug misuse, particularly where safety is involved.

Successfully tackling drug misuse can benefit both your business and your employees. For example by:

  • saving on the cost of recruiting and training new employees to replace those whose employment might be terminated because of reducing the cost of absenteeism or impaired productivity
  • creating a more productive environment by offering support to those employees who declare a drug-related problem, improving employee morale
  • reducing the risk of accidents caused by impaired judgement
  • enhancing the public perception of your organisation as a responsible employer
  • contributing to society’s efforts to combat drug misuse

Who is at risk?

All kinds of people are involved in drug misuse - they do not conform to any stereotype. A lot of people who are involved in drug misuse are in work.

What are the signs that someone is taking drugs?

If you are going to tackle drug misuse at work effectively, you may want to start by examining your own knowledge about the types of drugs available and the harmful effects they can have on the misuser and your business. So your first task will probably be to gather information to raise your awareness and that of your managers or supervisors. This can be a starting point but you may also want to approach some of the organisations listed in the 'What an employer can do?' page for useful reading material, educational videos and other information.

Drugs can affect the brain and the body in a number of ways. They can alter the way a person thinks, perceives and feels, and this can lead to either impaired judgement or concentration. Drug misuse can also bring about the neglect of general health and well-being. This may adversely influence performance at work, even when the misuse takes place outside the workplace.


Key legislation

Please note that these links are to the original legislation, visitors should verify for themselves whether legislation is in force or whether it has been amended or repealed by subsequent legislation.