How to Take Action when Employees and Alcohol Mix

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Alcohol and workplaces never mix well. No matter the sort of work they do, employees should not be in the workplace when they are under the influence or still suffering the effects of alcohol consumption. This includes drinking at work or immediately before starting work, and those who are still impacted by a big night out. 

So what steps should an employer take when dealing with a worker who they suspect is intoxicated in the office?

approaching an intoxicated employee

Occupational health and safety legislation throughout Australia places an obligation on employers to protect not only the safety of the intoxicated employee, but that of all other employees as well. 

This means making sure that an intoxicated employee can't hurt themselves or anyone else. Accordingly, employers have an obligation to approach intoxicated employees and ask them to leave work immediately (without driving a vehicle, of course!). 

However, being intoxicated at work does not necessarily mean that employees can be terminated immediately. When determining whether a dismissal for intoxication in the workplace is 'valid' or can be upheld, courts will consider several factors. These include whether the company's drug and alcohol policy or any contractual arrangements in place with the employee are sufficiently clear to demonstrate that there is a 'zero tolerance' policy for alcohol in the workplace. 

Although employees should certainly be disciplined for being intoxicated at work, employers who are wishing to avoid claims for unfair dismissal should consider interim steps such as clearly worded warnings rather than summarily dismissing staff.

factors that may contribute to alcohol abuse

Of course, prevention is always better than cure. Employers should give some thought to factors that may encourage their staff to over-indulge in alcohol to the extent that they are intoxicated in the workplace. 

Key risk factors include:

  • Age, gender and socio-economics. According to the Alcohol.Think Again campaign, young men who work in lower skilled or manual occupations are statistically most likely to be involved in 'risky drinking'.
  • Isolation (geographical isolation or social isolation within work peer groups)
  • Bullying, harassment and other interpersonal difficulties
  • Poor supervision, or support in the workplace
  • Difficult working conditions
  • High levels of stress 

How alcohol use can impact the workplace

An intoxicated employee can pose a risk to the safety of themselves and others. This is magnified when the employee is in a customer-facing role, or they are required to do manual work involving precision or machinery. 

Regardless of the nature of the work however, job performance can suffer as a result of the poor concentration and low productivity that will likely result from intoxication.

Steps to address alcohol use in the workplace

In addition to mitigating workplace risk factors, employers should ensure that they have clear and detailed drug and alcohol policies which identify under what conditions an employee would be determined to be 'intoxicated'. Policies should also clearly spell out the consequences of breaching those conditions. 

Employers must ensure that any breaches of the policy are thoroughly and objectively investigated, and any required disciplinary action is taken swiftly. 

If you would like to know more about risk management and creating effective drug and alcohol policies, or you require assistance with investigating an incident involving an intoxicated employee, contact WISE today.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For many employees, one of the most difficult aspects of navigating the modern workplace is deciding whether to disclose a mental health issue.

Not every employee is required to be open about their condition, and there is often a fear of the potential consequences for their career if they are. 

We take a look at when an employee is obligated to disclose, what employers must do, and the pros and cons of disclosure. 

what does the law say about the employee's responsibility? 

When dealing with mental illness in the workplace, employees are not required to share details of their condition with employers unless there are legitimate concerns that it may affect their ability to perform their role properly. 

For example, employees who operate heavy machinery but are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction or are reliant on certain types of medication should advise their employers, so that they do not risk their safety or that of their colleagues. 

Failing to share this information could mean that the employee is in breach of their obligations under Work Health and Safety legislation.

what must employers do?

Commonwealth legislation determines that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees for a variety of reasons, including discrimination on the basis of a mental health condition. 

According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), employers cannot act in a discriminatory fashion towards employees based on past or future conditions, temporary or permanent conditions, or actual or imputed disabilities. 

Types of discrimination which employees with mental health conditions may face include:

  • Direct discrimination, for instance when a candidate is not hired or an employee is disciplined inappropriately because of their mental health. 
  • Indirect discrimination, for example requiring all employees to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom - which for instance might cause difficulties for employees with anxiety. 

Choosing not to make adjustments for an employee who is struggling with their mental health is a form of discrimination. 

There are also obligations on employers around disclosing an employee's mental health status to others in the organisation. All employment relationships include an inherent requirement of confidentiality, which means that employers are prevented from discussing or disseminating information about their employees' mental health. 

Exceptions can be made in circumstances where the information must be shared in order to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the employee or as required by law.

pros and cons of disclosure

Workers who don't have an obligation to disclose often struggle with the pros and cons of sharing this information with their employers and co-workers. 

A clear advantage of disclosing this information is that colleagues are aware of the circumstances under which the employee is operating and can provide a level of social support. Managers who know that a team member is struggling with mental health issues may well be more sympathetic, and can assist by providing more flexible working arrangements, lessening workloads in times of crisis, or otherwise ensuring that the workplace is generally accommodating of the employee's needs. 

Further, ill-founded rumours or gossip may be avoided by an employee being open about the difficulties they are facing and could help de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace. 

Disadvantages include sharing very private information with colleagues, which may be disseminated to other people in the organisation and have the potential to result in harassment or discrimination. This may be particularly relevant in circumstances where the mental health condition is temporary or does not affect the ability of the employee to perform their duties adequately.

mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:

  • Taking care of themselves
  • Avoiding known triggers
  • Participating in exercise
  • Taking regular breaks during the work day
  • Staying up to date with any medication 
  • Relying on a support network (both inside and outside work)
  • Avoiding external influences like excessive alcohol or drugs. 

If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE Workplace can also assist employers with drafting and implementing policies relating to mental health disclosure.  

Issues with Intoxicated or Hungover Staff? What to do

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Most adults like to indulge in the use of alcohol from time to time. Some even like to partake a little more frequently - which is generally not problematic, in the privacy of one's own home and social sphere.

But occasionally problems with alcohol or even drug consumption can creep into the workplace, with staff under the influence while at work or under performing because of the after-effects. 

Employers have an OHS duty of care to all employees so they need to ensure that alcohol in the workplace does not give rise to safety risks. Employees also have a duty of care to themselves. Let's take a look at how employers can manage alcohol and drug-related issues in the workplace.

underlying factors and potential consequences

Alcohol and drug-related problems can occur in any workplace, across different industries. They can arise due to any number of factors, including personal issues experienced by the employee, stress, ongoing addiction, or poor workplace culture, to name a few. 

The potential consequences of alcohol or drug consumption - whether recreational or prescription - include the risk of injuries sustained by other staff and customers, absenteeism, lost production or general lack of competence, and a reliance on rehabilitation or workers compensation. 

The cost of these problems to business varies, however 1 in 10 workers say they have experienced the negative effects of a co-worker's misuse of alcohol.   

identifying alcohol or drug-related risks

One of the best ways to avoid difficulties with drugs and alcohol in the workplace is to identify potential risks and develop workplace policies that address these. 

These are some of the factors to consider when determining the level of risk facing your business:

  • Are your workers engaged in a high-stress environment? 
  • Is the operation of heavy machinery, vehicles or other equipment a requirement of your business?
  • Are there legislative or safety requirements to ensure that anybody operating this equipment is free from the influence of substances? 
  • Do staff potentially have access to illegal or significant amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, whether for their own consumption or for resale?

implementing a workplace drug and alcohol policy

At a minimum, your workplace policies should spell out:

  • Whether your company has a zero-tolerance policy for any types of drug or alcohol consumption;
  • Whether staff are required to declare reliance on specific pharmaceutical medications;
  • If random drug or alcohol testing is undertaken in the workplace; 
  • What expectations are placed on drug and alcohol consumption at work-related functions;
  • What the potential consequences of intoxication in the workplace could be

It is important to note that Section 12 of the Fair Work Act defines "serious misconduct" to include an employee being intoxicated at work. It would therefore be reasonable to dismiss an employee under those circumstances. 

It is also worthwhile ensuring that HR and other executive employees have undergone training in identifying staff who are intoxicated in the workplace or have perhaps formed habits of dependence. 

how to approach a worker who is under the influence 

When staff members suspect that a colleague may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is important to be extremely sensitive in approaching that person. The specific approach will, of necessity, be dictated by various factors, including:

  • The relevant industry;
  • The workplace culture and structure;
  • The employee's role and seniority; 
  • The personal circumstances of the employee;
  • Whether the occurrence is 'once off' of suggests a pattern of behaviour; 
  • The legal environment;
  • The duties and responsibilities of the employee.

An employee is likely to be more responsive if they are approached from the perspective of a safety concern rather than an accusation. This is particularly the case where the behaviour or intoxication may arise from physical injuries, acute distress or prescribed medication which the patient is reacting badly to. 

During the process of drafting a workplace policy relating to drug and alcohol consumption, management should consider appointing and training specific staff members whose role it is to approach employees who are suspected to be under the influence of substances. 

These staff members could include managers, counsellors, health and safety representatives or HR representatives. A chain of command should also be instituted so that staff who have been tasked with making initial contact have somebody else to turn to for assistance if their initial approach fails.

If an employer dismisses an employee for drug/alcohol abuse and ends up with a claim for unfair dismissal, then a good employer defence would include that they had a workplace policy and approach that not only included clear consequences but also emphasised that the employer views abuse as a health issue and therefore seeks to help the employee overcome their abuse (this would be in cases where abuse outside of work is affecting performance as opposed to being intoxicated or high at work). 

This can be done by having an Employee Assistance Program (provided by an external provider); having a mental health and wellbeing policy; and an 'RUOK' approach - whereby managers encourage a culture of everyone looking out for each other and literally asking, are you ok? After all, such welfare approaches are exhausted over a reasonable period of time an employer would be safe to move to disciplinary approaches. 

Employers may also need to assess whether the issue is widespread, ie. a workplace culture of abuse. If this is the case, then there maybe engrained cultural issues that need to be investigated and remedied.   

What can employers do?

Workplaces are encouraged to establish a workplace drug and alcohol policy and procedure that can be followed in the event of a drug or alcohol-related incident in the organisation. 

WISE can assist you in drafting these policies, or assessing your current policy, and training staff. Alternatively, we can provide investigative services for any incidents that have occurred in the workplace.