People Management: War against drugs in the workplace

Indira Das-Gupta

Three-quarters of UK employers would consider random drug tests.

The recent call by foreign office minister Bill Rammell to target middle class cocaine users highlighted just how social behaviour has changed in the past decade. Binge drinking and recreational drug use are now so prevalent that a growing number of employers are looking at introducing random drink and drug testing for their staff.

Although a 2003 survey by the Chartered Management Institute showed that a modest 16 per cent already use random testing, a MORI poll in the same year showed that 78 per cent of UK employers would be more likely to do so if they felt that drug or alcohol use was affecting productivity. Given the Government estimates that alcohol misuse costs industry £6.4bn a year, and drug misuse another £800m, it is unsurprising that more employers feel it is time to take action. But is testing the way forward?

DrugScope takes the view that unless there are safety concerns - for example, if an employee is driving a minibus full of children - the answer is no. Spokesperson Natasha Vromen says: "We believe the impact of drug use in the workplace has been exaggerated. Some drug-testing companies have put out a number of scare stories to encourage employers to introduce testing, which could prove expensive for a small charity."

One issue with drug tests is that they do not measure impairment. Traces of cannabis, for example, can still be detected up to three weeks after it has been smoked, long after it would affect an employee's behaviour.

Vromen says: "Drug use should only be an issue if it affects someone's ability to do their job properly. It is wrong for employers to police people's private lives, even if they are engaging in illegal activities."

Alcohol Concern believes that all charities should have a clear drink and drugs policy, and offers training to employers on the subject. Iain Armstrong, training unit team manager at the charity, says: "Charities tend to be more understanding than commercial organisations, but their policies tend to outline what employees must not do, such as drinking at lunch, rather than what assistance someone with a drink problem can expect.

"Charities must recognise that stress at work could actually be a contributing factor. Unfortunately, too many employers still take the judgmental view that alcohol or drug-related problems are self inflicted."

KEY POINTS

- Chartered Management Institute survey of 2003 showed that 16 per cent of UK employers use random drug testing

- MORI poll in the same year showed 78 per cent would consider drug tests if they thought their productivity was being affected

- DrugScope believes that impact of drug use in the workplace is exaggerated

- Alcohol Concern now trains employers on drink and drugs policies.

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