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Putting alcohol policies to work

Many organisations now operate workplace alcohol policies designed to ensure that employees are sober during working hours and to identify and help employees with that require support. They are most commonly found among large firms and those which are safety-sensitive, such as transport.

However, there are many organisations in which either the workplace drinking culture remains, or the requisite safeguards to prevent alcohol misuse and its effects are absent. Acknowledging this discrepancy, Dame Carol Black’s 2016 report recommended that preventative action to address the issue on the part of employers could “guard against future dependence and improve productivity and workplace culture more generally”.[1]


In recent years, several unions have urged organisations to incorporate measures addressing alcohol misuse into their workplace policies. In its submission to the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy (February 2003), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for further development of workplace alcohol policies. The report, titled Drink and work – a potent cocktail, stated that people were drinking more than ever before, but that few employers had alcohol policies in place to tackle the problems arising from problem drinking.[2] It referred to an Alcohol Concern survey which showed that three-in-five employers (60%) were experiencing problems as a result of staff drinking. Separate research from the CIPD and People Management magazine published in 2007 found that nearly one third (31%) of organizations have dismissed employees as a result of alcohol problems, that 42% did not even have alcohol or drug policies, and of the rest that did, very little was done to actively promote them.[3]

Unions have also been concerned that an increasing number of employers are turning to companies that offered screening and random testing as a means of dealing with alcohol misuse in the workplace. This is exemplified by local government workers’ union Unison’s qualified support of the decision of Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire to introduce drug and alcohol testing for its employees in 2013.[4] Unison was reported to have expressed concerns over certain conditions regarding the welfare of it members. Such potential grievances form the basis of a number of ethical concerns regarding the privacy and individual human rights of workers.

The TUC argued that such instances of employer behaviour were representative of a serious lack of understanding about the effects of alcohol on the workplace environment, and that the government ought to fund more research into this growing problem. Its report concluded that a partnership approach between unions, employers and government would be the best way to address the issue, and suggested the following ways in which all three parties might do so:[5]

  • The government should fund research looking at the extent of the misuse of alcohol by individuals at work, its effect on the workplace and its cost to the nation. The government could also offer financial incentives to those employers currently offering counselling and other types of employee assistance programmes to encourage more workers to come forward and admit their alcohol problems
  • Employers who don’t have alcohol policies should draw them up in consultation with unions in the workplace. Policies should cover such topics as tackling the causes of excessive drinking, confidentiality, counselling, screening, testing and occupational health services
  • Unions can play their part by training and providing information to union reps on dealing with workplace alcohol issues, and by helping those members trying to deal with their drink problems through rehabilitation schemes.

Professional help

There has also been some concern about the provision of support for professionals who have issues with alcohol.

In 2011, a newspaper article brought to national attention the calls of healthcare experts for urgent action to tackle the "significant challenge" of rising levels of alcoholism and substance abuse among professionals including doctors, dentists and lawyers.[6]

The problem persists among the medical profession – in 2017, a Pulse magazine survey found that around 11% of GPs had turned to alcohol to help them “deal with work pressures” (see figure 4).[7]

The BMA issued revised guidance on alcohol misuse in the workplace in early 2014, which was updated in 2016.[8]

Some experts have also noted a rise in medical tourism, due to the work hard, play hard culture exported abroad by UK professionals who travel abroad for business. Alastair Mordey, the programme director of the Cabin, a substance abuse clinic in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said that rehabilitation centres in the country were seeing a lot of professionals coming in, particularly from London, and that in Britain “there is a silent mass of professionals who are functioning... but they are in workplaces where you really wouldn't want them to be”.[9]

A survey from the Chartered Institute of Personal Development found only 33% of employers have formally trained their managers on alcohol and drug policy and management issues, and 43% of workplaces did not have a specific alcohol policy, while just 27% had capability procedures for managing staff with alcohol problems.[10] Dame Carol Black’s review suggested that the low take-up of workplace policy solutions may be the result of how challenging employers may find it to change the workplace culture in order to help employees to manage their hidden substance misuse problems.[11] The BMA website lists organisations providing services specifically for those in the medical professions who are struggling to cope with alcohol dependence and addiction.[12]

Cultural shifts

Notable employers that have taken steps to change workplace drinking culture include Lloyd’s of London, who in 2017 introduced a ban on staff drinking alcohol during working hours. This new alcohol policy was introduced to “bring the institution into line with others in the industry rather than being related to an increase in alcohol-related incidents”.[13]

Moves are being made to combat the drinking culture in the armed forces too. Following a high-profile sex offence court case, Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett said:

I would like to put it on record that too many offences occur because of the abuse of alcohol, more needs to be done by the services to address this issue.[14]

The Ministry of Defence Alcohol Working Group subsequently sought to review workplace policy to identify solutions to the problem of alcohol misuse in the armed forces, identifying 61% of military personnel who drink at risky or harmful levels.[15]

The MoD’s report ‘Alcohol Usage in the UK Armed Forces, 1 June 2016 – 31 May 2017’ highlighted the routine dental inspections that Forces personnel undertake as an opportunity for delivering Identification and Brief Advice (IBA) to promote behaviour change amongst at-risk drinkers throughout the workforce.

The MoD also stated that the introduction of the AUDIT-C tool at scale in the UK Armed Forces population to deliver IBA represented “one aspect of Defence’s broader population approach to promoting sensible drinking in the UK Armed Forces”.

Developing a workplace alcohol policy

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website contains a guide for employers on how to develop an alcohol strategy for the workplace. It highlights the legal obligation for employers, under The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees:

If you knowingly allow an employee under the influence of excess alcohol to continue working and this places the employee or others at risk, you could be prosecuted. Similarly, your employees are also required to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by what they do.[16]

Today, employers are also obliged to look for signs of alcohol dependent behaviour in their staff, for although an employee found drunk on duty is at risk of being dismissed for gross misconduct, employment protection law is sensitive to the underlying problems of alcohol dependence. Employers are therefore required to treat dependence as a form of sickness, thereby giving an employee the opportunity to overcome the problem.

Ultimately, an alcohol problem ought to be regarded as primarily a health issue rather than an immediate cause for discipline. This approach is supported by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), the ILO, and the Employment Appeals Tribunal.[17]

The HSE guide includes a model alcohol policy framework that employers can use as a template (see figure 5).

Rules for commercial and at-work drivers

The rules for commercial at-work drivers follow national drink driving legislation. The Transport and Works Act 1992* introduced the 80mg% legal limit for operational staff at British Rail, which has led to today’s established framework of limits and offences (under The Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003) that can be committed by people working in the field of aviation, transport and shipping.[18] Driving while under the influence – whether for work or leisure purposes – is covered by the 1988 Road Traffic Act, which stipulates a legal blood-alcohol limit of 80mg% while behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle (for more information on drink driving limits, please view our Drink driving factsheet in the Alcohol knowledge centre). This follows for pilots and their cabin crew working in the aviation industry (as per Part 5 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003), while professionals of the equivalent positions in the shipping industry are subject to a prescribed blood-alcohol limit of 50mg% (as per Part 4).[19]

In some industries such as rail and maritime, alcohol testing is already mandatory and necessary as a regulatory requirement. For the majority however, there is no right to mandatory alcohol testing.[20] A BRAKE-commissioned survey found fewer than half of employers (44%) would dismiss an employee driver for driving over the legal alcohol limit. It also revealed:

  • More than half never test employees for alcohol (55%) or drugs (57%)
  • Six in 10 (62%) take disciplinary action against employees found to have any amount of alcohol or illegal drugs in their system at work, but only three in 10 (30%) would dismiss employees for this
  • Fewer than half (47%) educate drivers on the risks of drug-driving, and only slightly more (50%) educate drivers on the risks of drink-driving.

The road safety charity urges companies to implement zero-tolerance policies on at-work drink driving.[21]


* Under the Transport and Works Act 1992, certain rail, tram and other guided transport system workers must not be unfit through drink while working on the system. The operator of such a system must exercise all due diligence to avoid those workers being unfit.


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[1] Dame Black, Carol (December 2016), ‘Drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity: effects on employment outcomes’, p. 47


[2] MEPMIS (January 2003), 'Trades Union Congress (TUC): Drink and work – a potent cocktail' <>

[3] HRM Guide (September 2007), ‘GGG CIPD Survey Highlights Drug And Alcohol Misuse’ <>

[4] Douglas, Joanne (August 2013), ‘Calderdale becomes first Yorkshire council to drug and alcohol-test employees’ The Huddersfield Daily Examiner


[5] MEPMIS (January 2003), 'Trades Union Congress (TUC): Drink and work – a potent cocktail'

[6] McVeigh, Tracy (November 2011), 'Alarm at growing addiction problems among professionals', The Observer <>

[7] PULSE (November 2017) ‘Revealed: one in seven GPs turns to alcohol and drugs to cope’ <>

[8] British Medical Association (BMA) (July 2016), ‘Alcohol, drugs and the workplace – the role of medical professionals’ <>

[9] McVeigh, Tracy, 'Alarm at growing addiction problems among professionals', The Observer

[10] Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2007), ‘Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work’, London, CIPD

[11] Dame Black, Carol, ‘Drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity: effects on employment outcomes’, p. 47

[12] British Medical Association (BMA), 'Sources of support'


[13] The Financial Times (February 2017), ‘Lloyd’s of London ban alcohol during working hours’ <>

[14] Armed Forces Network (June 2017), ‘Rape Case Judge: Forces Need To Tackle Drinking Problem’ <>

[15] Alcohol Policy UK (August 2017) ‘Armed forces deploy brief interventions: will it work?’ <>

[16] Health and Safety Executive (1996), 'Don't mix it: A guide for employers on alcohol at work', p. 4

[17] Stone, I (2005)., Employers liability and responsibility, in Ghodse, H (ed)., 'Addiction at work: tackling drug use and misuse in the workplace', London: Gower

[18], 'Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003' <>

[19] Part 5: Aviation – alcohol and drugs <> ; Part 4: Shipping – alcohol and drugs <>

[20] Landau, Philip (April 2013), ‘Spectre of workplace alcohol tests hang over employees’, The Guardian <>

[21] BRAKE (May 2014) ‘Brake calls for zero-tolerance on at-work drink- and drug-drivers’ <>