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Workplace drug and alcohol problems growing concern

Access to occupational health services essential, says new guidance for clinicians

Caroline White

Monday, 03 February 2014

The impact of drugs and alcohol misuse is a growing problem in the workplace, says the BMA in new guidance for clinicians designed to help employers better tackle the issues.

Drug and alcohol misuse not only lowers productivity, but it is strongly linked to ill health and early death, says the BMA, which urges employers to make sure that any staff with substance abuse problems have access to an occupational health service. Few currently do, it says.

In 2011 there were almost 9000 deaths attributable to alcohol and almost a further 2000 linked to illicit drug use.

The evidence suggests that those in work are more likely to drink frequently than those who are unemployed, with those in managerial and professional occupations more likely to drink more frequently than those in routine and manual occupations.

Job stress and certain working situations are associated with use of alcohol and illicit drugs such as shift or night work, travel away from home, working remotely and business meals.

Substance abuse can spill over into the workplace in the form of inappropriate behaviours, poor performance/judgment, reduced productivity, and a higher risk of accidents and time off sick, says the doctors’ union.

But employers are not always that clued up about the issues, or are fully aware of the impact drug and alcohol misuse can have in the workplace, it says.

Although Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are commonly used strategies to reduce problems with alcohol and illicit drug use in the workplace, these programmes are seldom evaluated, and little is known about their effectiveness, says the guidance.

Employers need to better understand the implications and provide both opportunities for health education among staff and facilities to identify staff with substance abuse problems, the guidance recommends.

Employers should have a substance misuse policy in place and train their managers and supervisors to recognise the signs of drug and alcohol misuse, and more importantly, know what to do if they suspect a member of staff has a problem or if an employee declares it him/herself.

Like any other health problem, these should be dealt with in strictest confidence, says the guidance.

Dr Paul Nicholson, who chairs the BMA’s Occupational Health Committee, emphasised the importance of occupational health.

“Only around one in seven workers have access to a qualified occupational physician, with many relying on their GP or hospital specialist for advice relating to fitness for work,” he said. “For this reason it is fundamental that all doctors understand the risks associated with alcohol and drug use in people who work.”

“Medical professionals should also consider a patient’s occupation when prescribing medication that might affect their fitness for specific types of work, particularly those patients who drive, operate machinery or work at height,” he added.

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