What are an employer's obligations toward alcoholic employees?

Comment by Health Assured CEO and Wellbeing Expert David Price

Alcoholism, alcohol abuse or a dependency on alcohol is a serious problem for anyone to combat, whether this is an individual trying to take action themselves or an employer trying to manage an employee who has this problem.

Alcoholism can go unnoticed for many years with the employee behaving like any other until a stressful incident or event causes the alcoholism to become known. Global research has previously estimated up to 5% of the average workforce is dependent on alcohol meaning it is likely all employers will face this issue at some point. Alcohol addiction is expressly placed outside of the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 meaning the addiction itself will not be covered by any discrimination protection. The employee will, however, be protected against discrimination where they have a physical or mental impairment which is caused by the addiction or arises as a result of the addiction, so long as the impairment meets the disability definition. For example, a depressive condition or liver disease caused by the alcohol addiction could see the employee being classed as disabled. This means the employee should not be treated any less favourably because of the disability or something arising from the disability, for example, disciplining the employee for their absence from work due to the impairment. Employers have a duty of care to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees. The cause of the employee’s alcoholism will need to be discussed to assess what reasonable steps can be taken. Where the cause is related to the workplace, such as work-related stress, the employer will need to take steps to remove the cause of stress. They can do this through, for example, reviewing the employee’s workload, assessing the support and training that is available to the employee, monitoring the employee, meeting with them regularly to discuss their work and offering stress-related support such as counselling. This duty of care will also extend to other employees in the workplace and the employer needs to ensure a safe place of work is provided for all. This may require them to take formal action against the employee where the alcoholism has caused a risk to themselves or others. In most cases, the action the employer can take in relation to alcoholism will be outlined in an alcohol and drugs policy. Where health and safety is key to the business, it will be prudent to include the right to carry out drug testing in the policy to ensure the employer has the right to undertake workplace testing. The first step for most employers will be supportive to help the employee recover from their alcohol addiction. Offering workplace support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme, will provide the employee with external advice and counselling. Other medical support, such as advice from the employee’s GP or an external alcohol service, may be required. Employers who support their employees through this difficult time will see the benefits of employing a loyal and dedicated member of staff.

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