Drinking alcohol at work: an employer's guide to alcohol policy

One of the most challenging issues an employer can face is managing an employee who has developed an alcohol problem.


James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.


07 November 2023


11 July 2024
5 min read
Drinking alcohol at work: an employer's guide to alcohol policy

One of the most challenging issues an employer can face is managing an employee who has developed an alcohol problem. Attendance is likely to be affected, and the employee’s quality and volume of work can be negatively impacted by their alcohol dependence.

Depending on the severity of the situation, this could create a negative atmosphere in the office, affect other team members, and even decrease the productivity of the business overall.

It's important to remember that any employee with a drinking problem has the same right to support and confidentiality as those with other mental or physical health issues. This guide will explain how to help an employee who has a drinking problem, what to do if they're drinking during work hours, and whether alcohol dependence can count as a disability.


Alcohol consumption in the UK – quickfire statistics

Drinkaware.co.uk reports that, in 2019:

  • 48% of (16+) adults claimed to consume alcohol at least once a week
  • 55% of men and 41% of women said they consumed alcohol at least once a week
  • 8% of men and 5% of women admitted to drinking alcohol almost every day
  • 58% of adults between 55-74 said they drank alcohol at least once a week, making this the largest group
  • Only 30% of 16-24 year olds claimed to drink alcohol at least once a week, making this the smallest group


Drinking at work: employers' responsibilities

Attending work with a hangover or drinking during the workday can lead to a loss of productivity that costs the UK economy more than £7 billion every year, and a loss of 167,000 working hours.

Employers in the UK have a legal duty of care towards their employees, meaning they must do everything reasonably in their power to support and protect workers' safety, health and physical and mental wellbeing. This includes:

  • Making the work environment safe
  • Completing regular risk assessments
  • Preventing discrimination against staff

By understanding signs of alcohol and drug misuse or abuse, employers will be better equipped to support their employees.


Potential signs of drinking at work and alcohol-related problems

The following are signs that could indicate an alcohol problem. However, these signs are not specific to alcohol abuse, and may be caused by other health conditions or taking medications.

They include:

  • Frequently being late or absent without good explanation
  • Difficulty in focusing on tasks or falling asleep
  • Dips in productivity or a decline in the quality of work
  • Changes in mood or erratic behaviours
  • Avoiding managerial staff

Physical signs to look out for in employees could include:

  • The smell of alcohol (on breath/clothing)
  • A decline in personal hygiene
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Covering the smell of alcohol by excessively using breath mints or chewing gum
  • Shaking or tremors


Consulting with employees about drinking at work

Employees must be consulted about health and safety, and any drug and alcohol policies that are in force.

Using ladders and electrical equipment, or operating heavy lifting equipment, are examples of safety-critical activities that could create dangerous situations if impacted by alcohol or drug misuse. Information like this can be used as part of a risk assessment.

If employees in safety-critical roles ask for help with drug or alcohol misuse, they may need to be temporarily transferred to other work for safety reasons.


Drinking at work and mental health

Woman attending a therapy session

Employers should take the mental health of their employees just as seriously as their physical health. If an employee is struggling with mental health and this is linked to drinking at work, an employer should talk to them to find out what support they need.

There are many different kinds of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Problems with mental health can build up over time or be triggered suddenly by life events.


Mental health and disability

In UK law, the Equality Act 2010 says that a person suffering with poor mental health can be considered disabled if:

  • There is a 'substantial adverse effect' on their life, for instance if it consequentially takes longer for them to complete tasks
  • The condition affects them for at least 12 months, (or is expected to)
  • It reduces their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, like following instructions or keeping to a set working schedule

This is the case even if the symptoms are not constant.

If an employee is considered disabled, employers:

  • Cannot discriminate against them because of the disability
  • Must make reasonable adjustments

It's good practice to consult with an employee to put the right adjustments in place, even if their problems are not classified as a disability. These changes could be as simple as minor alterations to an employee's responsibilities, or allowing extra rest breaks.


Which laws cover alcohol misuse at work?

Although there are no employment laws that cover the consumption of alcohol at work in general terms, there are more specific laws that cover certain industries, making drinking during work hours illegal. Any job that involves driving or operating machinery, or operating public transport, is covered by either the Transport and Works Act 1992, or the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Being under the influence of alcohol at work is not covered by employment laws, but there is health and safety legislation that relates to the subject. Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 state that employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety, health and wellbeing of employees. This means that putting employees or others at risk by allowing a drunk employee to continue working could make the employer liable in law.

Section 7 of the same Act puts the responsibility on employees to take reasonable care of themselves and those around them while working. Should a drunk employee put their colleagues or others at risk, they could also face charges.


Should I enforce disciplinary action against an employee who is drinking at work?

Employment law doesn't prohibit the consumption of alcohol during work hours, but many companies choose to create their own policies which do. Alcohol consumption during working hours may be stated to be misconduct, meaning employees would usually face disciplinary action for breaking the rules.

Any policies put in place covering substance misuse and disciplinary actions must clearly define what constitutes misconduct or gross misconduct, and that the health and safety implications have been properly considered.

Regardless of policy, firing employees for alcohol misuse or abuse is not often the best option for employers. Workplace counselling or other support networks offer a much better course of action. 


Creating a company policy on alcohol and drugs

 A drug and alcohol policy should be seen as an important and beneficial part of a company's health and safety policy. Rather than leading to dismissal, an effective policy should be able to support and help the rehabilitation of employees who admit to having an alcohol or drug problem.

An effective policy should also dictate when disciplinary or other action is taken, such as drug possession or dealing at work being reported to the police. Guidelines covering what is acceptable are important, as well as guidance to employees who want to seek help.

Management training and specific HR support are also essential so that both employees and line managers know how to access support. 


Screening and testing for drugs and alcohol

In some safety-critical roles, there is a strong need for employers to implement alcohol and drug screening.

When screening, it's important to remember:

  • Employers must legally get consent from their employees
  • Screening won't resolve alcohol or drug misuse by itself
  • It should be part of the employer's health and safety policy
  • The testing and result analysis must be accurate and free of contamination or tampering

More information on screening and examples of policies can be found in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) guide, Managing Drug and Alcohol Misuse at Work.

Get expert advice

Support from our team of professionals at Neathouse Partners can be invaluable if you're facing a problem with an employee drinking at work. Our team of HR consultants and employment lawyers can help you navigate the balance between duty of care and implementing a drug and alcohol policy.

Call 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.


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